Chapter 22: Warhorse Part 1—The First Year
Date Point: 4y 10m AV
Dominion Embassy Station, Earth/Luna L1 point, Sol system
Dr. Anees Hussein
Shaking hands with a Corti was an exercise in delicacy. Dr. Hussein thought of himself as an old and increasingly frail man, but he still had the grip strength to cause serious harm to the alien’s hand if he applied a little too much vigor. So it wasn’t so much a handshake as a handtouch.
Still. It was a civil, civilized gesture, and that alone was a mark of just how much his relationship with the Directorate’s ambassador, Medrà—and through them both, Earth’s relationship with the Corti Directorate—had evolved in a relatively short space of time.
“Thank you for seeing me.” he said, gratefully taking his seat when the Corti had gestured towards it with those long, fine-boned fingers that he could so easily have pulverized.
Medrà affected a small, businesslike smile. “Thank you for asking nicely.” he retorted. “The Gaoians continue to think they can just barge into my office whenever they please.”
“The Gaoians don’t want something from you.” Hussein replied. He had quickly learned that the Corti truly loved the direct approach. If you irritated them, they could skate and slide around the issue and deal in lies and half-truths with the best of them, but if you cut straight to the matter at hand and phrased things bluntly, they responded in kind and pretty soon you had either a deal or an argument. It had been true of Medrà’s predecessor, and it was true of Medrà.
After the tangled web of his home country’s politics, it was paradise.
“Indeed? That seems like a deviation from your previous position.”
“There has been a change of strategy.” Anees revealed. “Opportunities that we are now considering the possibility of exploiting, to the mutual benefit of any species who partners with us in exploiting them.”
Medrà sat back. “Please don’t be vague, Doctor.”
“All in good time. I would rather tell you what we need. I’m sure you will see our intent soon enough.”
“Please, do tell me.” Medrà replied. That was another thing about Corti psychology. They couldn’t resist having both their ego flattered and their intellect challenged at the same time.
“Two things. We would like to purchase from you the technology to make a lightweight load-bearing exoskeleton that does not require a power source to provide assistance to a moving wearer.”
“Trivial. The other?”
“A drug. Cruezzir.”
Medrà sat forward. “That is not going to happen.” he stated, bluntly.
“Cruezzir has a history of interacting…dangerously with human physiology. It has created two of the most notorious and effective criminals the galaxy has ever seen, in fact.”
“Yes, I’ve read their files.” Anees replied. “I also know enough about Cruezzir to be certain that, in their cases, it was applied incautiously and incorrectly, and that the long term effects are devastating in terms of mental health, which would be detrimental to our plans.”
Medrà stared at him, thoughtfully. “You’re creating super-soldiers.” he decided after a few seconds.
“An elite unit, certainly.” Anees conceded. “Possibly the most elite. But ‘super-soldiers’ may be going too far.”
“And what conceivable reason would we have for assisting the most dangerous species in the galaxy in creating the most dangerous soldiers they possibly can?”
“Ambassador, if we had designs on threatening the Corti, or anybody else for that matter, then I daresay we wouldn’t need an elite unit. Our regular infantry would easily suffice for any ground warfare conducted against any Dominion species, don’t you think? Why would we go to the expense and difficulty of creating a new elite?”
“In which case I’m intrigued as to the purpose of this hypothetical ‘elite’.” Medrà confessed. “What DO you intend to do with an asset like that?”
Anees allowed the inner ‘gotcha’ that rang triumphantly around his head to feed his best warm, closed-lipped smile. “Why, ambassador.” he said. “To clean up the mess we have made, of course.”
Date Point: 4y 10m AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“You’ve got to realise you’re asking me about classified information there, kid.”
“I know.” Adam had declined the offer to sit down opposite Captain Powell. He preferred to stand instead, resting his hands lightly on the back of the offered chair. “I’m not asking you to just tell me. I’m asking you what I have to do to earn it.”
Powell’s own chair creaked as he sat back and folded his arms, scrutinising Adam, who said nothing, trying not to fidget.
“Earn it.” he repeated.
“Right.” Powell unfolded his arms and rubbed a thumb on his chin thoughtfully. “Why?” he asked.
The question threw Adam a bit, outraging him. “Wh–? What do you mean ‘why’?” he demanded. “My best friend is dead! So’s my mother! So’s everyone I went to school with. Millions of people!”
“Right.” Powell agreed, nodding amiably. “That rather proves that what you’re after, if it exists, is a big deal, doesn’t it? So…what are you going to do with the information, should you acquire it? Is it obsession? Curiosity? Revenge? What?”
“I want to do whatever I can to stop anyone else from dying!” Adam snapped.
Powell threw him again when his face split into a broad smile. “That so?” he asked.
The captain nodded, and sat forward. “Right then. If that’s your goal, then realistically, you’re looking at military service. And I don’t just mean becoming a jarhead or MP. I’m talking intel, special forces, something like that.”
“Not a problem.” Adam told him.
“Aye? Well, we’ll see. Now…” Powell rubbed his chin again. “Realistically speaking…the only two services that are doing anything in space right now are the Royal Navy and the US Air Force. Thanks to your Cimbrean citizenship, you’re eligible to join either service, but frankly you’re more American than Brit, so the latter’d maybe suit you a bit better.”
He sat back again. “As for what you do in your chosen service…well, that one’s your choice to make, I can’t advise you there.”
“How did you choose?” Adam asked him.
“Me? The motto.” Powell said. “’Through Strength and Guile.’ I liked that, thought it sounded right fookin’ badass.”
He noticed the change in Adam’s expression. “What?”
“I’ve…never heard you swear before.”
“I don’t swear around children.” Powell said, simply.
“I’m still only sixteen.”
“Maybe, but it’s not about how old you are, Arés. It’s about the choices you make and your reasons for making ‘em.”
He nodded toward the door. “This isn’t a decision to be made here in my office.” he said. “Hit the library, do some research, think about it. My door’s open, alright?”
Adam nodded, still a little stunned by the show of respect. “I…Thank you, captain.”
Ava seemed to spend every waking second playing with her inherited camera these days, familiarising herself with its functions and the different effects she could achieve by varying the shutter speed, aperture size, focus and more. When she wasn’t studying the device itself, she was studying what Sara had done with it, examining the photos their friend had taken and making notes about their arrangement composition and more. She’d co-opted an entire wall of their living room in fact, covering it in post-it notes and colour prints, not to mention having borrowed every single book on photography that Folctha’s library had.
“The motto?” she asked.
“I guess. It seems like as good a thing to go on as anything else.” Adam replied.
She put the camera down. “But…special forces, Adam? Won’t that take you away for a long time?”
He stopped searching for a second and turned in his seat. “…Yeah, it will.” he agreed.
They hugged, melting into each others’ arms without either of them needing to invite the other.
“What are you going to do, do you think?” He asked after a silent minute or so. She ran a hand through her curls.
“I guess…I want to help people too.” she said. “I want to make some sense of all this. And now this camera’s been left to me, and Sara always talked about being a photojournalist…”
“How do you even get started on that? It’s not like they have recruitment…”
“I’ve been doing my own research there.” Ava told him. “I thought I’d try for City University London.”
“I guess you’ll be away for a long time too then, huh?”
She nodded, resting her forehead against his. “I guess…”
She caught sight of what was on his screen and looked up. “I like that one.”
“Hmm?” he turned, and read it aloud. “’That Others May Live’?”
“Yeah.” She said. “What do you think?”
Adam stared at it for a few seconds, repeating it under his breath. “I think…that’s the one.” he said.
“Pararescue?” Powell looked genuinely stunned. “Bloody hell, Arés. I can’t fault your ambition, but are you sure?”
“The motto speaks to me.” Adam shrugged.
”…Aye, alright. But not to try and talk you out of it or owt like that, you’re setting yourself up for a really fookin’ difficult couple of years.”
“I know the training will be hard, but—”
“No.” Powell interrupted him, standing up. “You don’t. You have no fookin’ clue what hard really is, I promise you that.”
Adam was smart enough to shut up and let him say his piece. The captain dug into his foot locker and pulled out a small A5 notebook, which turned out to be pasted full of photographs and hand-written notes. He flipped through the first few pages until he alighted on a picture of a young, acne-scarred man who was gazing proudly out of the photograph. “This was me when I took the Potential Royal Marines Course.” he said. “Right dorky little shite, wasn’t I?”
Adam caught his eye, and realised Powell was amused at himself. “I fookin’ thought I was a proper Marine, I did. The PRMC is two and a half days, they test you in the gym and the assault course, take you on a three mile run…I thought ‘if this is what it’s like, this is going to be fookin’ easy.” He laughed silently, deep in his chest, and flipped the page “Then I went through the actual Royal Marines training.”
The next photo had less acne and a stronger, more Powell-like expression, worn by a young man in a black uniform and green beret, with a rifle held precisely by his side. “That was tough. The PRMC didn’t prepare me for it at all, it just meant I was tough enough to START the training without collapsing.”
He closed the book.
“Every step along the way, I came up against limits I didn’t know I had and went beyond them. Marines Commando training was fookin’ hell, but I cleared it. Now: To apply for the Special Boat Service, you need a minimum of two years’ service as a marine commando. Did that. Got some medals, too. Figured I was doing well. Then I applied for the SBS, and that finally brought me up against the joint UKSF selection program.”
He opened the book again, flipping to a series of pages filled with pictures of rolling, rugged mountains, many of them falling off to sheer drops. “The first phase of that ends in a test week: five back-to-back days of walking sixteen or so miles a day in the Welsh mountains with a fifty pound bag and a rifle, and on the last day? Forty miles, which you’ve got to finish in less than twenty hours.”
He sat down. “And it just gets tougher from there. Much tougher. Men have died in that training. I failed the first time, only barely managed it the second but managed it I fookin’ well did. Right?”
Adam nodded his understanding. “Okay…?”
“From what I’ve heard of it, I honestly don’t know if I could have made it through the Pararescue pipeline.” Powell confessed. His face was the very picture of deadly seriousness. “They call it ‘Superman School’ for a bloody good reason.”
”…But people do get through it.” Adam pointed out.
“Oh aye, they do. And if you think you’ll be one of them, then fookin’ well go for it. I just want you to have some idea of what you’d be getting yourself in for.”
“Let’s say I do manage it…” Adam said. “Will that get me in on the secret?”
Powell said nothing, but returned to his desk and sat down.
“Your first step,” he said, not answering the question, “…is recruitment. The nearest US armed forces recruiting center is technically in Seattle, ‘cause that’s the easiest place to get to from Scotch Creek. If you’re going to walk in there and say ‘I want to be a Pararescueman’ then it’s going to take, oh…a week or so, total, so you’ll need a hotel room.”
“You thought it was as easy as just ‘Hi there, I would like to soldier please’? You’ll have to take a…” Powell looked up, remembering a detail. “…ASVAB, I think it’s called. Vocational Aptitude test. They’ll put you through a physical and mental evaluation, you’ll talk to a special forces recruiter, the works.”
He sniffed. “If they take you—though I can’t see why they wouldn’t—you’ll go straight on from there to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training. That’s eight weeks. You’ll graduate, see your family for the weekend, and then that’s it. You’re on to the PJ pipeline and you’ll find it a lot harder to see them again after that. Realistically? Christmas, and that’s about it. For two years, maybe longer.”
Adam went quiet and thought long and hard about that one.
“If that’s how I earn it, that’s how I earn it.” He said at last.
“Decision made, then?”
Powell nodded, then stood and shook Adam’s hand. “Well then. I’ll be cheering for you.” He said.
“Could I…?” Adam tailed off then shook his head. “Never mind.”
“Spit it out, mate.”
“If this is going to be hard…could you help me get started? Give me a taster? Get me in shape?”
Powell paused. “I’ll have to discuss it with Legsy, he’s the one who specialized in training and instruction.” he said. “And he won’t like it.”
“Well because he likes you, you daft bugger!” Powell said. “And while he’ll be happy to get you up to standard for Basic, if he’s going to give you even a fookin’ taster of Pararescue indoctrination, which is what I think you’re asking for…” Adam nodded “…Then he’ll have to go hard on you, right hard.”
“I guessed as much.” Adam said, patiently. He was beginning to grow tired of Powell driving the point home.
Powell noticed, and sighed. “I’ll…talk to Legs. Meet us in the gym tomorrow at 10:30, after a good breakfast. You’ll need it.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Might be a bit premature there, mate.” Powell joked. “But you’re welcome. I’ll…do what I can to help you along.”
“Aye. I’ll provide a reference, and believe me, that’ll count for a lot. But you’d better get on and have a good night’s sleep.”
“I will. Thank you, captain.”
Half of Powell’s mouth ticked upward. “Dismissed.” he said. “…trainee.”
The advantage to Cimbrean’s small, compact houses was that answering the door never took long, even if it was just yelling “I’ll be out in a minute!”
Hayley used that time to fill the kettle and started it boiling, take quick stock of the house to make sure it was tidy, and hide a certain little white box before she opened it.
Not for the first time, she reflected that with her heart-shaped face and curly dark hair, Ava was the very picture of the painfully pretty girl next door in jeans and flannel. Today, though, she was also painfully nervous about something, to judge from the way she’d been pacing little awkward circles outside, rubbing her fingers together.
“Ava? What’s wrong, honey?”
“Umm…” Ava gave her a nervy little smile. “Nothing’s wrong, it’s just I could…I could just use some advice.”
“From me?” That was astonishing. Hayley wasn’t sure she was qualified to advise anybody on anything these days.
Hayley stepped aside “Come on in.” she offered.
Ava did so, and perched herself restlessly onto the edge of the couch.
“Cup of tea, sweetie? Or, I’ve got Ovaltine…”
Ava smiled, a little weakly. “Ovaltine would be nice.” she agreed.
Hayley let her relax as she bustled about, taking a little longer making the drinks than was strictly necessary. By the time she was done, Ava had sat back a little and released some tension in a big sigh.
“So…what’s up?” Hayley asked, though she had a sneaking suspicion.
“I, um…” Ava puffed out her cheeks and exhaled. “Adam and me, we’ve never…I mean…”
Okay, so Hayley’s suspicion had been wrong, but now she understood what this was really about. “You’ve not? Oh, honey…I kind of thought with you living together…”
Ava looked down at her hands, which were a frantic little knot of fingers. “Different beds.” she said, with a little laugh. “Are you…okay with me coming to you?”
“Well who else are you going to ask? Adam’s dad?” Hayley laughed, and Ava giggled. “No, honey, it’s…I’m actually kind of flattered. What do you need to know?”
“I guess…whether I should, really.” Ava said, relaxing. “I mean, Mom and Dad always said I should wait for marriage, and…”
“So did mine. I didn’t listen.”
“No, honey, listen to me a second.” Hayley shuffled forward on the couch and set her tea down. “I know you miss your parents so much it hurts. I can’t go two hours without remembering Sara and…” she closed her eyes and rallied. “But…Let me tell you what I wish I’d told her, okay? All your parents would want is for you to be happy, and to be safe. That’s all.”
Hayley nodded. “They told you to wait because they didn’t want you rushing in and getting hurt.” she said. “There’s nothing magical about your wedding day that’ll suddenly make it the right choice if it wasn’t before, and if it’s the right choice now, then…why wait?”
Ava was nodding along, but she frowned. “How…do I know when it’s right?” she asked.
“Well, you…” Hayley paused to think about it. “Okay, now here’s something I wish my parents had told me, okay?”
“Sex is…nice.” She paused, and corrected herself. “No, it’s great, even. But everyone seems to get this idea that it’s this precious, special thing and they say all kinds of stupid stuff about it. Judging you for having too little, too much, being a virgin, not being a virgin…”
“So…I shouldn’t care?” Ava asked.
“Exactly! Just be smart about it. Have as much or as little as you want, and don’t let anybody tell you when or with who or anything like that. That’s all your choice and nobody else’s. Just be smart about it.”
“Well I mean, you know about…the pill, and condoms and everything, right?”
“Oh, that!” Ava looked relieved. “Yes I…I know that stuff.”
“Good. So be smart about using them, because…trust me on this, you really don’t want to be a mum yet.”
“No.” Ava agreed.
“Okay. So the question isn’t ‘how do you know when it’s the right time’, okay? The question is just…’Do you want to’?”
There was a long pause, during which Ava drank about a third of her Ovaltine. “Adam’s…going away.” she said, eventually and quietly.
Hayley shuffled around the corner and put an arm round Ava, rubbing her back. “He is?”
Ava nodded. “He turns seventeen a few days before Christmas, and he’s…joining the military.”
“No, no. I’m happy: I’m going to be doing something too. We both want to achieve something and this is the way he’s doing it.” She sounded like she meant it. “But…he’s going to be gone for so long, and…”
“You feel like you should give him a proper send-off?”
“That’s…for me, that wouldn’t be the right reason, sweetie.”
Ava wrapped both hands around her Ovaltine and sipped it. “In that case…what would be the right reason?” She asked.
“There’s only one right reason, honey: because you both want to. The list starts and ends there.”
They sat in silence for a bit until Ava had finished her drink.
“I’m leaving too.” Hayley revealed.
”…You are?!” Ava looked up, and Hayley internally winced at the desperation she saw in the younger girl’s eyes. “Hayley, why?”
“Don’t worry, it’s not because of Sara or anything. I’ll be coming back.” she promised. “I’m just going away for a few months.”
“I’m…Mark and I are having another baby.” She dug the pregnancy test box out from where she’d hidden it under a throw pillow. “We’re worried about the low gravity affecting the baby’s development, so I’m going back to Earth for a year…You’re the first person I’ve told besides him.”
“I think I conceived a day or two before we lost Sara…I know Mark and I haven’t…we’ve not been together since then.”
Hayley nodded. “I’m not ready.” she said. “I’m so scared I’ll treat the new child like a replacement for Sara. But…here we are. So, I’m going back to work with the Earth end of the Reclamation Project, and Mark’s staying here.”
It was Ava’s turn to put a hand on Hayley’s arm. “Are you two..?”
“We’re…” Hayley squeezed back some impending tears with a forced smile. “We’re fine. Really. He gets angry sometimes, I’ve said some things that…We scare Jack sometimes. But we always cuddle and talk it out afterwards. In a way, I’m glad the baby’s come along. It’ll give us both something to work on for the future. Maybe that and a little distance will help.”
She wiped her eyes. “Come on, you came here for advice. Is…did I help?”
Ava nodded. “You helped a lot.” she promised. “I just have one question left, really.”
“How will I know if Adam wants to?”
Hayley giggled. “Honey, with boys? It’s so easy to tell.”
“Be serious.” Ava protested.
“I was!” Hayley assured her. “But the simplest way is to just ask him. Failing that, if you want to be sure…well, if you make it obvious that you want him, then you’ll know soon enough either way.”
“So…how do I make it obvious?”
Hayley laughed. “Go into his room wearing some perfume and one of his T-shirts and nothing else, kiss him, then grab his wrist and put his hand on your butt.” she said. “He’d have to be dead not to get that message.”
“But what if–?”
Hayley interrupted her, patiently. “Ava. Sweetie. Everything after that point is for you and him, okay? There’s no script. Just talk to one another. Tell him how you feel, tell him what you want to do, tell him what you want him to do, ask him what he wants…That’s the most important thing, okay? Communication.”
“That sounds…awkward.” Ava was blushing.
“It will be. Forget what it’s like in movies, sex is always at least a little bit awkward. Your first time most of all. Just…live with that and try to have fun.”
“No; thank you. It’s good to…” she’d been about to say something about falling back into that mother role, but decided against it. “…to be able to give advice.” she finished.
Ava smiled and gave her a little hug. She left the house looking much more relaxed than she had entered it.
For her part, Hayley was surprised to find there was a little warm coal of happiness deep inside her again. As soon as Ava was out of the way, she sat down and wept, happily.
“So…what am I going to be doing?” Adam was asking, as Powell entered the gym. Legsy hadn’t, as predicted, been happy about giving Adam a ‘taster’, but the young man was persuasive and knew his own mind.
The sergeant just picked up the rucksack that had been leaning against the wall behind him, hoisting it easily in one hand. “You’re going to run around the gym wearing this.” he said.
“Okay…” Adam turned around. “How heavy is—oof!”
“Do up that one around your waist…and that one across your chest. Pull ‘em tight…no, tighter than that, come on! There you are.” Legsy instructed, until the pack was strapped tight to Adam’s body. He gave it an experimental shake, yanking the teenager around. “Good?”
Adam nodded, though his expression had an edge of trepidation to it now. “Good.”
”…Well, what are you waiting for then?” Legsy demanded. Adam made an ‘oh, right’ face and set off at a jog.
“Is that what you call running?” Legsy shouted after him. “Come on, you’re here to train, boyo!”
Adam nodded and gained some speed.
“Your crippled old man runs faster than that, come on!” Legsy spurred him. Powell ambled across the gym as the kid found his third gear and started to actually run round the gym.
“That bag won’t get lighter if you slow down, pal!” Legsy called, then noticed his commanding officer and stood to attention. “Captain.”
“Not a bad start.” Powell observed, waving at him to stand easy. Adam was in athletic shape at least. He wasn’t a fast runner, and probably never would be, but after a little encouragement he was doing a pace that should at least spare him the indignity of being the slowest trainee when he got to basic.
“Don’t let him hear you say that, sir.” Legsy admonished him, then raised his voice again. “You’ll have to bloody SHAVE by the time you’re done at this rate, come on!”
“How heavy is that bag, anyway?”
“Fifteen kilos.” Legsy said.
“You’re starting the kid out on tab weight?”
“If he’s going for PJ, sir…faster boyo, come on!…then fuck aye I’m starting him there.” Legsy told him. “Besides, he’s stronger than he looks.”
Powell watched Adam piston along, already drenched in sweat and red as a forge. “You know training better than me.” he conceded.
He lurked against the wall and watched as Legsy cajoled, spurred and berated Adam into keeping up the pace, verbally goading the boy to keep putting one foot in front of the other, clicking the little counter in his hand every time Adam made it back past the start line.
It wasn’t long before the exertion began to really catch up, though. Adam’s steps became wobbly, his rhythm faltered. He was practically on the edge of falling over when he passed the start line again and Legsy finally blew his whistle.
They let him rest and had a quick conversation.
“Well?” Powell asked.
“Look at this.” Legsy showed him the counter.
Powell arched an eyebrow at the number on it. “Really?”
“Stronger than he looks, like I said. And he’s got more in him, too. Reckon he could stand up and do maybe even half as many again.”
“Fuck aye.” Legsy agreed. “Especially if we can find his superman button.”
“His…hmm.” Powell rubbed his chin. “Mind if I–?”
“Be my guest.”
They knocked fists together, and Powell took his time ambling over to where Adam was still lying spread-eagled on the heavy pack.
“Enjoying your nap?” he asked.
Adam’s breathing was much improved even by the time Powell reached him, though the lad was clearly in a lot of discomfort as he tried to raise his head. “How did I do?” he asked.
“Do? You’re not done yet, mate.”
“But…how…? Everything hurts!”
“Is that right? Fine, that’s nowt to be worried about.” Powell reassured him. “You can lie there a bit longer, but while you’re at it, I want you to imagine the future.”
“Imagine…Adam Arés, seventy years from now, dying peacefully in hospital, surrounded by his beautiful wife and beautiful kids and beautiful grandkids. Idyllic, right? A warm hand in his, and his family all about him, he closes his eyes and slips away…and there they are.”
Adam just gaped at him, confused.
“The ghosts.” Powell clarified. “The ghosts of all the people he could have saved but didn’t, because ‘everything hurt’ seventy years earlier. Every life lost because young Adam Arés didn’t have it in him to push on through the pain. Every soul he has to look in the eye and know that their lives mattered less to him than a little fookin’ comfort.”
Adam’s breathing slowed hugely as he sat there for a second with his mouth still open.
Then, without a word, he rolled over, hauled himself to his feet, and began to run.
Date Point: 4y11m1w AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
The now familiar soreness and weakness in Adam’s legs were promptly forgotten when he found Ava and his dad waiting for him in the front room, and a wrapped present and some cards on the table. Not to mention the cake.
“Seventeen years.” Gabriel said, hauling himself upright and giving Adam a heartfelt hug. “It’s been a wild ride, amigo.”
“Así es la vida.” Adam returned the hug. “I thought you were back on Earth for the Lehmann case?”
“And miss this? I’d have beat them out the way with my cane if they’d tried to make me stay.” Gabriel scoffed.
“Gracias.” Adam meant it, too. He sat down next to Ava, who kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Presents? I’m not used to birthday presents.”
“You’re not?” Ava asked.
“Well, Christmas in three days, usually I just get a big Christmas present, you know?”
“Well, what do you get the man who’s leaving everything behind?” Gabriel asked.
”…good question.” Adam said, eyeing the gifts. Gabriel just grinned and lit the candles—two large numbers, rather than a field of seventeen small ones. “Blow them out and you’ll see.” he promised.
Adam dutifully did so, and Ava slid the gifts in front of him as Gabriel set about cutting the cake.
“That one’s from the school.” she said as Adam selected it. He fingered the odd, lumpy package for a second, then gave up on identification and ripped it open.
“Sandals and a…toiletries bag?” He opened it and peered inside, finding an assortment of hygiene products and some deodorant.
“They did some research and apparently you’ll need all of those in training.” Ava explained.
“Huh. Thoughtful of them.” Adam set them aside, pleased with the gift.
Ava gave him an embarrassed smile when he opened her gift. “You’re allowed so little and…y’know, the school had already got you everything, so, I, uh…kind of donated to charity in your name.” she confessed. “I’m sorry.”
“WaterAid?” Adam read the card.
“Yeah. They say the amount I gave should save a few lives…” she smiled nervously.
Adam kissed her. “Good gift.” he reassured her, and selected the card from Gabriel.
A photograph fell out of it when he opened it. When he picked it up, his mouth opened slightly. “How did you–?”
“Facebook.” Gabriel said. “Kind of a…reminder of more innocent days.”
Adam nodded, realising that it was the first time he’d seen his own mother’s face in months. Luiza Arés nee Ortega hadn’t been an easy woman to get along with. In fact some days she’d been the bane of his life. But the photograph really was a happy one, showing off an all-too-rare smile that made it very obvious why Gabriel had ever fallen in love with her, and it reminded Adam just for a second that he really did miss her.
He wasn’t sure how long he studied the print before he set it down. It was probably only seconds—it felt like weeks.
He reached over and hugged Gabriel. “Love you, dad.”
“Love you too, man.” Gabriel said.
Date Point: Christmas Day, 4y11m2w AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Christmas on Cimbrean seemed set to become something a little different to the small, family affair that Ava had been used to on Earth. Given that Christians were decidedly in the minority among the citizenry of Folctha, it was hardly surprising that there was a noticeable shortage of nativities and hymns, too.
None of the small congregation at that morning’s nondenominational mass had apparently minded. In fact, the sermon had stressed Matthew 6:5 and its implications for a Christian abroad in a predominantly secular galaxy. Not that you should keep your faith to yourself, as such, so much as that your faith was yours, your own little candle to carry. Giving you light and warmth, but also representing a burden of care, not to let it die and not to burn down your relationships with.
That…relaxed approach didn’t exactly gel with what Ava had learned in Sunday school. The ideas of Hell and Salvation had always scared her, while, insofar as Christianity as it was practiced in Folctha could be called a “sect”, their sect’s focus on personal fulfillment in this life through a loving relationship with God, rather than expectation of reward or a stay of punishment in the next through a regime of worship, spoke to her.
The consensus at discussion over coffee that had followed had broadly been that in fact a Christian on Cimbrean was free to have a much more personal relationship with God precisely for those reasons. Most of them confessed to feeling more spiritually fulfilled than they ever had on Earth. A few expressed doubts about “reinventing” Christianity, but even those voices were simply voices of caution, rather than rejection.
The hymns made her feel warm inside, as did Reverend Joanne White’s hand on the top of Ava’s head during the blessing.
It was like stepping into another world when they left the Faith Center to join in the secular festival outside. The size of the cargo jump array had limited the size of the tree they could import, but it still formed a towering centerpiece to the town park, decked in lights and ornaments fashioned from spaceship wreckage or from the by now thoroughly extinct Pinkwood tree.
There was no snow, of course. In fact, it was a warm Cimbrean summer’s day, hence the adoption of a number of Australian Christmas traditions, including bikinis, barbecues and Bacardi. A dozen engineers from the Byron motor pool—a motley bunch who had taken the name “The Alleged Orchestra” for their performance—were set up and vigorously arranging every seasonal tune they could think of on the fly, beating the music into shape until it vaguely fit their unique instrumentation, which included a Diddley-Bow, a metallophone made from a set of wrenches, and a Cello that had been recycled out of a couple of beer kegs. The result was amazingly musical, with a bluesy, jazzy, energetically raw twist that seemed to be going down well with the revellers.
The Gaoians were watching it all with plain and obvious bemusement, she noticed. There were a lot of them now, all males, and all seriously throwing themselves into the practice of meditation with the vigor of a man helping his child build sandcastles who’d suddenly uncovered a pirate chest. They were sipping mulled wine and probably enjoying themselves, though they were keeping out of the way.
There was so much to take in, none of it guided by any specific tradition, but informed by hundreds. People bringing out their presents to put them in little piles under the tree. The smells of the town feast being prepared, spices and dancing and an impromptu a capella rendition of “Fairytale of New York”, Sir Jeremy Sandy in a Santa outfit, the Soldiers versus Civilians tug-o’-war…
Hayley and Mark sitting in a corner, his arms around her waist from behind, watching their son—Sara’s little brother Jack—play with his classmates with strange expressions that were equal parts happiness and sadness.
There was a sudden pair of arms around her own waist. “Can I interrupt?” Adam asked her.
Ava glanced down at the camera. She hadn’t even been entirely conscious of taking the pictures. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” he took her hand and led her back towards the Alleged Orchestra, where people were whirling and skipping in circles to the music, linking arms, bouncing around one another and then spinning off to join up with a new partner.
She couldn’t keep up with him—over the last month he’d gone from quite athletic to military fit under Legsy’s watchful guidance—but she didn’t quit the dance when she couldn’t go on any longer. She just de-orbited to its outskirts, to clap along and cheer and whoop as he enjoyed himself, occasionally letting herself take a picture.
It was just the start of a day that lasted forever.
Date Point: Boxing Day, 4y11m2w AV
Adam wasn’t yet asleep, but it still took him a couple of seconds to register the knock on his door.
He sat up a bit “Ava?”
She called through the door. “Can I come in?”
She’d left the hall light on and leaned against the door frame, backlit by it, and Adam had to employ some willpower not to stare. She was wearing what looked a lot like one of his t-shirts, a thin white one. The shirt itself wasn’t blocking any of the light from behind her, and the varying depth of shadow her body made under it was…
He sat up some more and leaned forward to try and hide what the view did to him, discreetly bunching a little more blanket on his lap.
There wasn’t anywhere else to look though, without actually looking away from her. If he looked down then he had to contend with her legs, and as for her face…there was an expression there he couldn’t really read—a dark and intense one.
“Hey, uh…” He said. “You okay?”
“It’s after midnight.” she said.
“Oh…uh, happy birthday.”
She looked like she was about to say something. Then she shook her head, stepped onto the bed and hugged him. “Can I sleep here tonight?” She asked.
He scooted over and she dug herself under the blankets and wriggled into his chest. He smoothed her hair out of the way. “You okay?”
”…I just…” She looked up and kissed him. “It’s going to be tough, not having you around.”
He put a hand on the back of her head and held her. “That’s going to be the toughest bit.” he agreed.
“You’ll write me?”
“Every chance I get.”
She puffed out a huge rush of air into his chest and snuggled up against him even closer. “I love you.”
It was a phrase they rarely uttered. A vulnerable, weak little phrase, really. But that just meant it had so much more meaning for them. “And I love you.” he promised.
He could feel her smile against his chest, and the way she relaxed, and fell asleep.
She was still there in the morning when he woke up.
Date Point: 4y11m4w AV
Seattle, Washington, USA, Earth
Leaving home had been hard.
Travelling alone and sleeping alone in an unfamiliar hotel room in an unfamiliar city full of the kind of traffic that reminded him painfully of San Diego, and which he’d grown accustomed to the absence of in Folctha, hadn’t made for a good night’s sleep.
That, and it was cold. January in Seattle versus early summer in Folctha had been an unwelcome introduction to the joys of a freezing grey drizzle that seemed to come right off Puget Sound, bent on freezing the whole city. He’d been tempted to dive for the warmth of his hotel room the second he got off the plane, but instead he used the hours of daylight and went straight from the airport to the USAF recruiting office.
That part turned out to be easy. He was in and out inside an hour or so, having practically had some documents thrust into his hands along with instructions to attend the Military Entrance Processing Station the next morning. Apparently, the recruiter had been impressed.
For lack of anything better to do, he took a walk and saw the sights. He’d have preferred to jog, but he’d worn his good chinos to make an impression for the recruiter.
He didn’t watch the people at first. He watched the architecture, and the city, taking in the square glassy greyness and the scratchy trees that were no more than bare twigs in the winter, the overcast-sky openness of the street plan and the whirr of bicycles. The traffic was familiar, but the city it crawled around in couldn’t have been more different. Cold though it was, he could see that the plants which seemed to be all over everything would actually fit here, rather than being aliens imported and maintained at great effort.
Of course, Seattle meant Starbucks. He knew that much, and eventually he dropped in on the one on 5th avenue, in the shadow of the monolithic black Columbia Center.
Mercifully, it was quite warm inside, and he shucked off his jacket—the rugged, all-weather one that most Cimbrean colonists had, with the “From Ashes” patch that only Ava shared. He tugged at the T-shirt he was wearing underneath, aware that it was an old one that, nowadays, was stretched tight across his chest and shoulders. It was a good shirt for showing off the gym-fit physique he’d picked up training with Legsy, but not exactly comfortable.
The people-watching skills that Gabriel had taught him prodded him a second or so later, alerting him to a change.
It was subtle. The young mother in line in front of him had shepherded her kids forward and was now keeping them in front of the stroller. The older man in the grey suit next to him scooted his chair forward and around the table a little. The Barista, on the other hand, was almost certainly sneaking sly glances at him down the counter.
He tried to ignore it, studying the menu as they crawled toward the counter, but it was difficult to ignore that the people who joined the line behind him left arm’s length at least, nor the snippet of conversation he could just hear from a middle-aged couple by the door.
‘No, I don’t think so…he doesn’t have any tattoos…‘
That…shocked him. Upset and surprised him. He fumbled his way through a clumsy order for a simple Latte, left the change for a tip, and made himself scarce.
His return walk to the hotel was a solemn and thoughtful one which he spent, rather than looking up at the buildings, looking down at his feet, lost in thought and trying to ignore the way people veered out of his path on the sidewalk.
In the end he spent the evening lurking in his hotel room playing free games on his phone.
The weather, if anything, got even more dismal overnight, which was in its own way fortunate because he barely slept, and an early morning jog in the bracing Washington weather did more to get him alert and ready than all the coffee in Colombia.
Once wearing clean and dry clothes, he caught a cab to the MEPS, which turned out to be just one small part of a huge building behind a wall of hedging and trees, by the railroad track and just north of the airport.It wasn’t what he’d pictured, but he trusted the cab driver, so he refused to allow himself to dither outside—he headed straight in after paying the fare.
Inside, it wasn’t what he’d anticipated either. He’d envisioned more of the posters and macho imagery that had decorated the recruiting office.
What he instead got was a reception desk in a fairly bland office space. There were flags and crests up and a general clean and efficient air, but if not for the uniforms he might have been in a civilian workplace. The reception desk didn’t actually have a human on it, just a series of touchscreens which, on being prodded, walked him through a quick and simple series of questions about who he was and what he planned on becoming, asked him to scan the barcode on the form the recruiter had given him, and then directed him to a printer which spat out a sticker with a QR code and his name on it, thanked him, and directed him to wait. There were a lot of chairs for that—Adam paced, pausing to grab meagre cups of water from the cooler in the corner. He’d barely been there for five minutes before he started to feel like a zoo lion.
He might have been there half the day before anything interesting started to happen. A handful of people were sitting and fidgeting alongside him, most about his age and with their parents in tow, before he was called and directed to a station where he filled in a form. Then he went back and waited. Then he was called to another station, where they asked him some questions. Then he went back and waited, again and again.
By the time it was done he felt both as if he’d never stopped moving, and also as if nothing at all had happened. He had no idea if it was afternoon or full evening yet, but eventually he was sat down opposite a handsome man in a blue shirt with the five stripes of a technical sergeant on his sleeve and the surname “Foster” on his chest, and had his hand shaken.
“So. You want to be a pararescueman?” the sergeant asked, sitting down.
“I do.” Adam agreed.
“The unit motto speaks to me. ‘That others may live’.” When Foster just waited patiently, he felt drawn to elaborate. “I’ve…I’m from San Diego originally, I’ve lost people, and I guess I want to keep others from having to experience that.”
“Have you considered alternatives?”
“Sure. But that’s my first choice.” Adam said.
“What alternatives did you consider?”
“I guess…security, force protection. Medic…That kinda thing, you know? I was thinking of being a cop like my dad, before I decided to do this.”
“Was there any specific event that changed your mind there?”
Adam nodded. “My friend was murdered. Sara Tisdale? On Cimbrean? I heard it was a big story back here on Earth for a while…”
Foster nodded. “You have my condolences.” he said. “But why did that change your mind about your choice of career?”
Adam took a deep breath, worried that what he was about to say might sound paranoid or crazy and ruin his chances then and there, but Powell’s advice had been impossible to misinterpret—speak honestly, always.
“I think…I think there’s a pattern at work.” he said. “like, everyone knows that San Diego was destroyed by antimatter, it was in the official investigation’s report. But nobody has that much antimatter on Earth, so there have to be aliens involved somehow, and who else would want to sabotage Folctha’s spaceport like the guy who shot Sara was trying to? Well, I think that the military know who’s behind it, and I want in. I want to stop them from hurting anybody else.”
Foster stood. “Stand up, let me have a look at you.”
Adam did so.
“look at me.” Foster continued. “Raise your arms above your head.”
Adam did so, patiently awaiting an explanation. He didn’t get one: Foster just gestured toward a pull-up bar. “See that? Get up on it and show me what you’ve got.”
Adam almost laughed. He’d been doing reps alongside Legsy in 1.15G in Folctha’s variable-gravity gym for the last month. He shook his limbs loose, reached up, got his form strictly correct, and set to.
He hadn’t even started to feel the burn yet when Foster interrupted him. “Okay, okay. Get off that thing, put this on and start over.”
‘This’ turned out to be a heavy weighted vest. Adam shrugged it on, got back on the bar, and resumed his pull-ups.
He was finally starting to feel some heat in his muscles when Foster spoke again. “So, why you?”
Adam dropped off the bar and turned to face him. Foster shook his head. “I didn’t tell you to stop, son.” he chided. “Get back up there and keep going.”
Foster watched him resume his form. “So…why you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Adam asked him.
“It’s a simple question, son. Why you? Why do you think you want this? Why do you think Pararescue is the right one for you?”
“Well, like I said, the motto.”
“Okay, well what makes you think you’re right for Pararescue?.”
Adam’s brow creased as he really started to feel his muscles working. The weighted vest was making all the difference. “I’m going to work damn hard for this.” he said. “if I have to stay on this…” he grunted “…bar ‘til I’m twenty to prove that, I damn well will.”
“You think you can work that hard?”
“I know—” the exertion finally started to choke off Adam’s words. “—Yeah. I can.” he finished, between pulls.
Foster nodded again and watched him for a few more before finally raising a hand. “Alright. Rest up.”
Adam lowered himself slowly down this time, and massaged his hands. Foster handed him a glass of cold water as he sat down, which Adam gulped down in one as the sergeant jotted a few short observations.
“Alright, I think I’m done with you for now.” Foster said. “You’ll need to go on through the rest of the MEPS, get your tests done and all that stuff, but assuming there’s no problems there, you’ll be coming back here tomorrow to speak with the special forces recruiter.”
Adam beamed. “Thank you!” he said.
“How’d you get here, cab? Where are you staying?”
Adam told him, and Foster nodded. “Right. We’ll pick up the bill from here on in, as well as transport. I’ll see you later on today once you’re done with all your tests.”
The rest of the day passed in a blur for Adam. He was measured, weighed, had samples of blood, hair and saliva taken, asked to walk around with one foot on tip-toe, had puffs of air shot into his eyes by a machine, spent some minutes with another machine pressing a button whenever he saw lights in his peripheral vision, a few minutes in a dental chair, filled in forms, answered questions, took tests. Even the businesslike intimacy of the full medical examination didn’t faze him.
The important part was, that he was past the first hurdle.
Technical Sergeant George Foster
“Okay, next up for review is…Adam Arés, permanent address…Twenty Delaney Row, Folctha, Cimbrean. Huh.”
“Yeah, we’ve got ourselves a space cadet here.” Somebody joked.
“Space cadet he may be, but he’s the real deal.” Foster commented. “I put him on the bar, stopped counting at fifty. He says he was training in supergravity for a month before coming down here. Looks like the British special forces garrison there took him under their wing.”
“Their CO gave him a reference.”
“What’s it say?”
“Pretty typical British, really.” The sergeant with that file examined the letter. “To.. blah, blah…’I’m sending this young man your way with my professional opinion that he may be of some use to you. Yours sincerely, Captain Owen Powell’ et cetera. End letter.” She smiled, folding it up again. “You’ve got to love the Brits, right?”
“Isn’t Powell the SBS officer behind the SOR program?” Foster asked. “If he is, then that’s a glowing reference right there.”
“Well his opinion seems on the money. The kid’s already fit and strong and he’s got exactly the right build for a PJ. So…Unless there’s anything wrong with him, Doc?”
The chief medical examiner studied his own copy of the candidate’s notes. “His bloodwork showed a lot of testosterone…” He commented. “…but I chalk that up to him being young, fit and eager to prove himself. I see no reason to suspect steroids or substance abuse. His mother died young in the San Diego blast so there’s no way to know his medical history from her…There’s a history of Glaucoma and Coronary Artery Disease from his paternal grandparents, but his ECG and intraocular pressures were all fine today. No concerns.”
Foster turned to the staff psychologist, Lieutenant Schoemann. “Doctor?”
”…He’s angry. Grieving and angry.” Schoemann concluded, examining his notes. “But he’s channelling it well, it’s motivating him healthily. He’s got a long-term steady girlfriend and he’s come to us. That shows drive and an ability to emotionally commit, and that month of hard training proves that this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, he’s thought about this and prepared for it. He’s…maybe not the most introspective young man I’ve ever met, but he’s not lacking in intelligence…Overall he’s calm, pleasant, confident, intelligent and well-adjusted, with plenty of healthy aggression. I think he’s an excellent candidate.”
“Guess he’s one for you, then.” Foster commented, turning to Master Sergeant Wood, the special forces recruiter.
“Absolutely.” Wood agreed. “He’s a strong PJ candidate, but he’s maybe even good enough for the SOR program.”
“It can’t be an accident that this Captain Powell gave him a reference like that.” Wood noted. “We’ll see how he does tomorrow.”
They moved on to the next candidate.
Date Point: First Contact Day, 5 years AV
Seattle, Washington, USA, Earth
A car came to pick him up, rather than the taxi he’d taken the day before. It wasn’t raining this morning, but the wind was still cold enough to sting the ears, even through his Gore-Tex beanie.
The driver parked up and got out of the car, which surprised him, as did the fact that he was wearing sports gear rather than USAF blue. “Adam Arés?”
The driver shook his hand. “Master Sergeant Tony Wood, USAF special forces recruiter.” he said, producing a card to verify his identity.
“Oh! I, uh…thought I’d be meeting you at the MEPS, Master Sergeant.”
“You can just call me Sergeant, son. I figured I’d get a look at you in motion, you up to go for a jog?”
“Sure.” Adam had already taken a morning jog, but it had been barely more than a warmup and stretch, anticipating a day of being put through his paces. He suspected that Wood had something a little more strenuous in mind.
And so it proved. That month of training with Legsy paid off—jogging on Earth with no load was different to jogging on Cimbrean with a heavy bag to compensate for the gravity difference. In many ways it was easier, but Wood was a tall man with a long, easy stride that ate up the ground, forcing Adam to take three steps for every two of the sergeant’s just in order to keep pace.
Weirdly, the questions he’d been preparing for didn’t materialise. They just did a double loop round some of the interesting parts of Downtown before returning to the car, and Adam’s ego wilted a little when he noticed that Wood, although he was steaming up the air with regular, working breaths, had obviously found the run much easier than he had. Clearly, he still had a lot of fitness to gain to really make the grade.
“Not bad. Y’ain’t fast but next to some of the other kids I’ve seen…” Wood congratulated him.
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
Wood thumb-pointed to the hotel. “If you want to change, I’ll wait in the car.”
“Can I shower too?”
“Sure. Make it quick though, we’ve got a lot to cram in today.”
Adam nodded and ran back to his room for a quick rinse, dry and change job. Sure enough, when he got back to the car, Wood was pocketing an old-fashioned digital stopwatch.
He made a mental note: ‘Everything is a test.’
Wood didn’t comment as he climbed in, just put an arm on the back of the seat to turn and reverse out of the parking bay, then merged into city traffic.
“So. Pararescue.” he said. “I was a Combat Controller myself, the brother unit, but I got a lot of respect for the PJs. The training’s hell, but they do a heck of a job.”
“Captain Powell said they call it ‘Superman School’.” Adam volunteered.
“That they do.” Wood took a right turn. “Now, in all honesty, this is something I don’t say to most candidates, I think you’ve got what it takes to pass it.” he turned right again.
“Thank you.” Adam tried not to smile.
“Well, hear me out…” Wood took a third right turn. Adam wasn’t sure if he had a destination in mind—the route was such an inefficient one that he suspected the sergeant was just driving for the sake of keeping them moving. Fortunately he didn’t turn right again, but sat back and relaxed on a long straight.
”…What if I could offer you something more?” he asked.
“Check in the glove box, there’s a tablet in there.”
Adam did so. When he swiped to turn it on, it filled with what was clearly a form of some kind. “What’s this?”
“Non-Disclosure Agreement.” Wood revealed. “You need to read it in full, sign and give a verbal signature, but the gist of it is that what I’m about to tell you is classified information and you’ll be liable to federal prosecution if you discuss it with unauthorised persons.”
“Okay…” Adam read the document in full, twice, then wrote and signed his name and, when prompted, carefully enunciated the script that the form displayed for him. “I, Adam Miguel Ángel Arés, solemnly affirm that I agree to be bound by the terms and conditions of this non-disclosure agreement.”
Wood nodded. “There’s a program in the works, something that your Captain Powell had a hand in masterminding.” he said.
“Yup. There was a space battle over Cimbrean about four months ago, you know about it?”
Adam nodded. “Yeah.”
“Well, Captain Powell, and the commanding officers of the two ships involved, HMS Myrmidon and HMS Caledonia, they made a recommendation to the British Ministry of Defence that specialist skills and training were going to be required to form the basis of infantry operations in space. The MoD decided to share the idea with the DoD, and from there it got bumped all around the Coalition and it’s becoming a joint Allied venture.”
He took a left turn. “It’s being called the Spaceborne Operations Regiment, or SOR. Currently it doesn’t even really exist—it doesn’t have any men, the spacesuits they’d wear are still being designed…but we know two things about it. The first being that its primary mandate will be frontline combat operations against the alien organisation which, you’re right, nuked San Diego and murdered your friend.”
“So it’s real.”
“Yup. That’s as much as I can tell you for now; even under NDA, you’re not cleared for the details. But you’re right, we’re fighting a war right now, and the SOR are going to be the guns in that fight.”
”…Alright. What’s the other thing?”
“Training will be four years. Minimum. And you’ll be under contract for at least four years after that, so this would be at least an eight year commitment, if you took it.”
“That’s…an awful long time.”
“Yup.” Wood agreed. “We had to jump through hoops to get that contract approved.”
“Would they be doing stuff other than fighting these aliens?”
“Anti-piracy operations, counter-Hunter operations…Most of the time you’d be operating exactly like any Pararescueman under the aegis of the USAF, so search and rescue of liferafts and broken ships, humanitarian aid, emergency medicine. Finally, you’d be a qualified astronaut and that means you might wind up spending some time on the ISS in some capacity.”
Wood’s jaw moved, thoughtfully. “Yes.” he said eventually. “We think we’re going to have to put the candidates on an extremely intensive physical track.”
“An armored spacesuit is going to be dang heavy.” Wood explained. “Every trick to make it less so is being considered, but the fact is that Spaceborne Operators are going to have to be strong, and you especially if you’re falling into the role of Spaceborne Pararescue. You’ll need to be able to carry all your gear plus one of your buddies with HIS gear and suit across long distances, and given the weights involved, we’re not actually sure that getting you that strong that quickly will even be possible, let alone wise.”
“It can be done, though?”
“Sure. The numbers are within the limits of what’s humanly possible, but if we’re going to get you that strong inside the duration of your training…At the very least it’ll be difficult, and probably quite dangerous.”
Adam sat quietly and ignored whatever route Wood was taking for some minutes. “I’ll…need to think about it.” he decided eventually.
“Good.” Wood nodded. “If you jumped at the chance, I’d have turned you down on the spot. You’re going to need to be sensible, not impulsive.”
“Test passed, huh?”
Wood laughed. “You passed that one, yeah.” he agreed. “The decision’s not going to finally land on you for months yet, I just wanted to give you time to process it.”
Adam recognised the trees and rail tracks outside the MEPS as they rounded a corner. “So, what are we doing for the rest of the day?”
Wood sniffed a little amused noise. “More tests.” he said.
“Everybody present? Very well.”
Adam straightened. The MEPS had a little ceremonial room, decorated in wood panelling and rich blue carpet with a selection of flags at the front of the room on a little dais. He’d been handed a little card full of instructions and the Oath of Enlistment as he entered, and had taken the time to read it. Some of the others hadn’t.
Now, there was an officer standing on the dais, getting their attention.
“Gentlemen,” he said “You will shortly be called to read aloud the Oath of Enlistment, as written on the card presented to you. There’s an alternative secular version printed on the reverse of the card for those who prefer, and I’d like to remind you all that the first amendment of the very constitution that you will now be pledging to support and defend guarantees the right of all citizens to be free in their own beliefs.”
He surveyed them all. “This Oath is binding. Once you have taken it, you will have formally enlisted in the United States Air Force, so if anybody’s getting cold feet, now’s the time to say so.”
Nobody did. Adam flipped the card over, double-checked its content, and nodded to himself, mentally preparing.
The officer smiled, “In that case, we’ll be going in alphabetical order…Arés, Adam.”
Adam stepped forward.
“Would you like a Bible, son?”
“No thank you, sir.”
“Then raise your hand and recite the Oath.”
Adam did so.
“I, Adam Miguel Angél Arés, do solemnly affirm that I will…” he checked the card “…will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I…will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that…” he checked the card again “and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the, uh…the Uniform Code of Military Justice. By my word am I bound.”
The officer extended a hand, smiling warmly. “Welcome to the Air Force, son.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He stepped over to where the officer indicated and waited, not hearing as “Himura, Daniel” was called.
There was no going back, now.
Date Point: 12 hours later Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, USA, Earth
It wasn’t exactly night-time when the bus arrived at Lackland AFB, but the sun was definitely down, leaving only a kind of glowing blue-blackness where the stars would soon be. It was a warm night, FAR warmer than the early January climate he’d been exposed to in British Columbia and Washington. It felt more like Cimbrean, in fact, if not for the gravity. San Antonio in January had a lot in common with Folctha in summer.
“How the hell big is this base?” somebody muttered after the fifth minute of the bus rounding corners and driving past darkened buildings. Adam guessed they were already being hazed, the bus winding around to disorientate them and make the place seem bigger than it really was. He didn’t try to say as much, just grabbed his bag, ready to leap into action the second the shouting started.
And start it did. They pulled up outside a low building, the doors opened, and three men leapt up the stairs and began bawling threats and instructions at the trainees. Some of the smack-talk was so absurd and witty that Adam almost wanted to laugh. He resisted the crazy impulse, knowing it would only get him into trouble if he did.
He was the third or fourth off the bus, lining up alongside the others—he’d learned their names on the way down but right now it didn’t seem so important to remember them as to try and form a roughly straight line, and set his bag down in front of him, upright against his legs.
“Trainee, you pick that bag up and hold it until I say otherwise!”
Feeling silly and self-conscious, Adam snapped out a “Yes sir!” and grabbed it, hoisting it easily onto his shoulders. Silly or not, whether or not it passed muster as a response, one of the other trainees snickered at him for it, and promptly got rounded on. Adam just stood there, staring directly forward and holding his bag, trying not to attract any attention.
A face was suddenly inches from his own “You play any musical instruments, trainee?” it demanded.
“No, sir!” The face disappeared.
There was a lot of shouting, much of it…not insulting, but certainly calculated to shake any illusions he may have had about being confident or ready for this. He tried to stay focused in case any of it was directed at him. The fact that nobody else rolled up and roared at him suggested that he succeeded there, and it wasn’t long before they were bawled into filing into the building, assigned their seats at deafening volume, told to stand up, told to sit down.
Adam could focus on nothing other than making sure he heard and obeyed any order that was directed at him, responding to them as well he could. It wasn’t long before he found himself at a mess table with a tray in front of him. There wasn’t much on it—a sandwich, a bag of potato chips and a small carton of orange juice. the sandwich turned out to be frozen solid, the chips were plain and unsalted, and the juice was watery and unpalatable. He forced it down as best he could anyway, polishing off the juice and chips before he was halfway through the sandwichcicle.
There followed a gauntlet of paperwork and questions, being handed things, having things taken off him, being shouted at for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom, responding with reflexive apologies or acknowledgements.
He managed to retain which Training Flight he was in, at least. Not that he had a choice—he was forced to repeat the information so many times he doubted he’d ever forget it. It almost came as a surprise when he sat down on the bus to the dormitory and found that nobody was shouting for a few quiet minutes.
“What the shit have we got ourselves into?” the trainee next to him muttered rhetorically, sotto voce. Adam didn’t answer. He just gripped his bag and waited for the next order.
Out of the bus, lined up, given a few rules, into the dorms, picking a bed. He spent five minutes with his finger pressed to his locker, repeating the number on it until the knowledge was carved into his brain, never to be forgotten. It was the only moment that stood out of a blur of orders, instructions, beratements. He span through a cold shower in seconds, liquid soap in hand. Get wet, step out to let somebody else use it, lather up, step back under to rinse off, all the time being screamed at to move faster, faster, faster!
When the blur ended, he was lying in bed wearing uncomfortable new clothes and listening to the others around him try to get comfortable. He was pretty sure at least a couple were fighting back tears. Plenty, he knew, were repeating that same question to themselves that he’d heard on the bus: ‘What have we got ourselves into?‘
Adam didn’t wonder. Twelve hours of travel and the emotional jolt of leaving Ava behind had taken so much out of him that he was the first to fall asleep.
Date Point: 5y AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Banging on the door summoned Ava out of bed, and she threw on a bathrobe to answer it.
Cimbrean didn’t exactly have a postal service so much as it had Logan Brown, one of the schoolkids who took it on himself to hand-deliver any parcels and letters that came through the Jump Array on any given morning.
“Morning, Ava!” he chirped, handing her an envelope covered in USPS stamps and with the slightly worn feel of having travelled a long way in slightly careless hands. As soon as he was gone, she practically shredded it in getting the envelope open and sat down to read.
It wasn’t a long letter, but even so it had a rushed, shaky feel to it. Adam’s handwriting—unsurprisingly, for somebody who’d grown up never really needing it—had never been neat, but now his scrawl was only just legible, and that with some concentration and puzzle-solving.
Not goin to lie this SUCKS I mean I knew it was going to but DAMN!! Its like a movie in here, I thought those movies were bullshit but we just get yelled at and bullied and told we’re stupid and it doesn’t make any sense. Everythings so weird too everyone looks the same same haircut same clothes same everything if they werent all taller than me Id think I was lookin in the mirror everywhere I go.
Powell was right I really didnt kno wat I was getting myself in to im tired all the time I keep being yelld at over nothing like they yell at me for not eating enogh like wtf Im full how do you expect me to eat more theres no room?!
shit they just told me Ive got to put the pen down I love you dont worry ill be okay its just crazy round here.
It made for tough reading. She went to school in a low mood.
Date Point: 5y1w AV
Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, USA, Earth.
“Alright trainees this is your morning wake up call I want you out of those beds and at attention before the end of this sentence, Get up! Get up and stand at attention!!“
Responding to the daily indignity of being shouted awake had become a reflex, and Adam was already scrambling out from under his blankets by the end of the word “trainees”.
It was only around about the word “beds” that a horribly familiar pressure in his boxer shorts finally infiltrated his awareness as his morning wood made itself known. Several of the rest of the training flight had noticed and were fighting to keep a straight face, while his own face slowly turned pink.
Not for the first time, he regretted accepting the first bunk he’d found, right next to the MTI’s office, because there was no time for it to go down. Technical Sergeant Lake was already progressing down the dorm, on the lookout for ANYTHING he could criticize.
He paused by Adam, who swallowed, awaiting the humiliation that was surely imminent, but instead, Technical Sergeant Lake’s voice was calm and quiet, amused even.
“Trainee, you have my sympathies, but you need to be standing at attention.” he chided, very gently. “So you do that, and you don’t worry about anything else.”
“Yes, SIR!” Adam choked out, and forced himself to stand fully upright, thanking the Lord that nobody, nobody could possibly have remained hard in these circumstances.
Technical Sergeant Lake—who was always thought of and referred to as Technical Sergeant Lake, and addressed with the loudest “SIR!” that the trainee could muster—nodded and carried on, leaving Adam to compose himself.
The next trainee was unfortunate enough to be making a desperate little chewing motion to try and keep a straight face, and Technical Sergeant Lake rounded on him like a terrier on a mouse.
“Trainee, do you find this amusing?!” he demanded, screaming the question at most an inch from the culprit’s nose.
The luckless trainee’s expression sobered instantly. “No, SIR!”
“Were you perhaps trying to get a good look then? Is that the first time you’ve seen a warhorse, Trainee?!“
Adam’s eyes shut themselves of their own accord just for a second, and he knew that his face must have gone as red as tabasco. If the whole base had been hit by a meteorite at that moment, he would have welcomed it.
“N–no—” the trainee began.
“I DID NOT ORDER YOU TO SPEAK, AND IF I HAD I WOULD EXPECT YOU TO SOUND OFF LIKE A MAN!!” Technical Sergeant Lake roared. “Front leaning rest position!“
The trainee instantly hit the floor and held himself there, ready. Technical Sergeant Lake directed a glare around the room that could have boiled steel. “If anybody else cares to comment on your fellow trainee’s gift, get it out of your system!” he ordered. Nobody so much as twitched. “Outstanding! Trainee!” he addressed the young man on the floor. “Push the Earth until I say otherwise!“
He turned to check on Adam, whose composure had now recovered somewhat, grunted, and strolled through the dorm, taking his time over it. “Make your beds!” he ordered. Then, to the trainee on the ground: “Trainee, recover! And since you’re so enamoured of our warhorse here, you can help him make HIS bed first! JUMP TO!!“
Adam threw himself into the chore, grateful for something to do. The relief at being able to finally get started with a day’s training rather than dwell on his embarrassment was huge.
By the time they had showered and there was food in front of him, he’d almost completely forgotten that it had happened.
“So hey, WARHORSE.”
Adam’s bunk-mate was John Burgess, and the two had bonded quickly over learning that they shared some San Diego experience. Burgess had lost family to the ‘Big One’, the quake that had crippled the south side of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the detonation, when their house had collapsed. He’d been one of the few who had managed to keep a straight face that morning.
“Ah, fuck, you’re not going to start calling me that, are you?”
“Hey, man, it fits! I mean, DAMN! You’re a fuckin’ grower!”
This prompted a round of laughter, cat-calling and good-natured hollering, while Adam was yanked back to the morning’s embarrassment with a cringe. “Oh fuck, come on, really?” he protested.
Burgess just grinned. “I’m just sayin’ man, no wonder your girl writes you so much!”
“Fuck you, man.” Adam told him, though it was said with a smile.
“No, please!” Burgess threw up his hands in mock defense. “I wouldn’t survive!”
“You’re one to talk!” one of the others chimed in. “We’ve all seen you in the shower, the fuck are you smuggling in that sack, grapefruits?”
“Man, they ain’t that big!”
Adam snorted. “Like fuck they aren’t. You used to pitch for your school team, right? We should start calling you BASEBALL.”
Burgess frowned at him. “No!” he asserted.
“Too fucking late, brother.” one of the others asserted. “You call him WARHORSE, you get called BASEBALL. All’s fair in love and war.”
There was general snickering at that one as the newly-christened ‘BASEBALL’ wilted. “…shit.” he declared.
Adam laughed. Being able to share the experience of an embarrassing nickname was taking some of the sting out. “Guess we’d better get used to it.” he said.
Date Point: 5y1w4d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
As Cimbrean’s population had ballooned with the influx of Byron workers, the school had expanded with it, hiring a second teacher and splitting into three “grades”. The oldest of which, for the time being, consisted solely of Ava. It was a bit lonely at the top, but the lack of distraction had allowed her to really focus on her studies.
Still, she was grateful for being checked up on. Jessica Olmstead had assumed responsibility for the middle group and mostly left Ava to educate herself, intervening only to recommend a syllabus and make sure that everything was going well—mostly, what lessons she gave to Ava these days revolved around study techniques and how to learn and self-organise, rather than conveying subject-specific information.
“Is that another letter from Adam?” she asked, sitting down.
Ava nodded. “Yeah, he gets to send me one a week, this is the fourth one. Logan delivered it on the way in to school.”
“It’s a shame you can’t have phone calls.”
“Yeah. I really miss just hearing his voice…” Ava looked at the letter, longingly.
“Could I–?” Jessica asked. “I mean, not if it’s too personal, but I’d like to know how he’s getting on.”
Ava nodded, knowing that Adam’s letters never contained anything embarrassingly intimate, and she slit the letter open with a fingernail, unfolding it onto the desk.
“Hey Ava” she read aloud. “I think I’m starting to do okay now. Our TI said on like day one that if he was using the word stupid it’s because we’re doing stupid stuff, and that’s really started to sink in now, I’m starting to get it.”
“Things aren’t what you’d call easy, but we’ve kind of got into the rhythm now. There’s no time to stop, everything’s all go, there’s no downtime, and whenever I get to feeling like I really want just a few minutes to relax, we just get pushed harder and it turns out I didn’t need the break after all. Nobody’s allowed to hide in the back and let it all happen to other people, I thought I could at first, like if I just shut up and did as I was told I’d breeze through this and not get yelled at, but that doesn’t work because they still pick up on what you’re doing wrong and fix it. They don’t let us coast along, it’s all push, all the time.”
And now I actually kind of enjoy being yelled at now. Is that weird? If I’m being yelled at it means I fucked up” she stopped reading and shot a glance at the younger kids. “Uh, sorry Jess.”
Jessica giggled “It’s okay. Go on.”
”…It means I blanked up and I don’t want to blank up. Being yelled at means the TI’s got my back, he wants to help me not blank up in future. So when he yells at me, he’s helping me.”
“They’ve made me Guidon bearer, it’s kind of cool but I have to carry this thing on runs and salute with it and it’s heavy as-” she cleared her throat “…as blank.”
“That’s my fifteen minutes, lots of love to Dad and even more for you.”
Jessica sat back. “Wow.” she said. “He sounds…different already.”
“Yeah.” Ava agreed, quietly.
”…are you okay with that?”
Ava folded the letter again. “I guess I have to be.” she said.
Jessica inclined her head—Ava had sounded genuinely philosophical rather than resigned or bitter. “What do you mean?”
“There’s…” Ava sighed, and sat back, running a hand through her hair. “Like, there are so many things I can’t change. I sure as heck couldn’t change Adam’s mind about this, if I could he wouldn’t be Adam. So what’s the point in not being okay with them?”
“That’s…true, I guess.” Jessica conceded.
“Yeah…” Ava looked down at the letter. There was a sharp tap as a wet patch appeared on it and she scrubbed furiously at her face.
“Ava, if you need some time alone…” Jessica offered.
This earned her a brave little smile, and a headshake. “I’m…No, I just need to, to focus on the things I can change. That’s all.”
”…Okay. You let me know if you need anything, okay?”
Ava just nodded her gratitude, set the letter aside, and returned to reading the textbook she’d chosen.
Jessica went to make herself a cup of tea, and didn’t return until she was absolutely certain none of the kids would see that she’d been crying.
“Big news: I got told today Im going to be honor graduate!”
“Theres so much Id like to write here, about what Ive been through. My head just feels full of ideas all settling into place at last. Theres just no way I could cram it all into 15 minutes so Im not even going to try. Its so weird Week 0 feels like it was yesterday and like it was years ago at the same time I wonder if youll even recognize me?”
I cant wait to see you. Ive missed you so much, its going to be unreal seeing you again.”
Date Point: 5y 2m AV
Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas, USA, Earth
“Okay, I can’t see him.”
Ava gave Gabriel a teasing smile. “You don’t recognise your own son?” She asked.
“I’m looking right at the guy carrying the flag at the front of his flight, and that’s not my son, I’d swear to it.” Gabriel protested.
“It’s Adam.” She promised. “Right height and build, right face.”
“He moves differently.”
There was a deep-throated chuckle from Gabe’s left. “It’s called ‘marching’ mate.” Powell told him. The captain had declined to share his reasons for attending the graduation, but in any case he stood out less than Ava would have guessed. His wasn’t even the only non-US uniform present. In any case, Powell had a remarkable ability to stand still, watchful and quiet and slip people’s attention when he wanted to. He was scanning the few hundred trainees in the parade with a cool, level stare that took in the details. “Your lad’s an Airman now.”
Gabe frowned at him. “He’s…still the same person under it all though, right?”
“Even better.” Powell said. “Trust me, he’s the same bloke under it all, but he’ll be sharper now, more confident. Probably in a bloody good mood, too.”
Gabriel looked back and squinted. Ava guessed that he was trying to connect the buff, buzz-cut creature of precision and intensity in front of them with some earlier vision of Adam, most likely the wiry, shy guy from school that she’d first started dating.
Those two people didn’t seem to have a lot in common, but it was definitely Adam. She’d spent too long staring at that face to mistake it.
“Do you think he can do it?” She asked Powell. “Pararescue, I mean?”
The captain nodded. “He can.” he said. “That’s not to say he will, mark you, but he’s in with as good a shout as anyone can have.”
“What happens if he drops out?”
“Personally, I’d bet against that.” Powell commented. “But if he does, he does and I’ll bloody respect him for giving it a go. There’s plenty else he could do, and all of it would be a walk in the bloody park after dropping out of the pipeline.”
“I guess it’s better to know where your limits are and acknowledge them than fake it.” Ava guessed. Powell bobbled his head a little, indicating yes-and-no.
“True. But you can’t fake it wi’ that kind of training.” he said. “That’s why it’s so hard. But your fella’s got a superman button, miss. Poke him the right way and he’d spit in God’s eye to get the job done. I reckon if his trainers know their business—and I’m pretty bloody sure they do—they’ll have figured that out already.”
“I never knew.” Gabriel said softly. They both looked at him. His eyes were shining with a mixed bag of pride and something else that Ava couldn’t quite identify.
Powell clapped him on the shoulder. “Only the beginning.” he promised.
Gabe acknowledged that with a nod, and didn’t comment further, so neither did Ava nor Powell until the parade was done and the gathered airmen had been given a rousing congratulation and freed to see their families and visitors.
Ava took first dibs on greeting Adam, throwing herself into an enthusiastic hug that turned out to be like tackling a wall. He hadn’t grown in size much, but Adam’s muscles had clearly toned and hardened under that uniform, and he lifted her as if they were still on Cimbrean.
He murmured into her ear. “Miss me?”
“You know I did.” she replied, and kissed him.
Gabe interrupted them by hugging them both. “I hardly recognised you.” he said.
“It’s the haircut, right?” Adam grinned.
“And the body language, all that stuff.” Gabe replied. “You move more like he does.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Powell, drawing Adam’s attention to the older Marine’s presence for the first time. Adam hastily extracted an arm from the hug and saluted.
Powell returned it but said nothing, indicating with a wry expression and a tilt of his head that Adam should focus on his family first.
They fussed over him for a few minutes longer before Gabriel finally suggested that Adam should discuss whatever business it was that Powell had brought with him. He in turn was then dragged into the discussion by dint of being Cimbrean’s security chief, leaving Ava to stand alone for a little while.
Adam even listened differently now, she noticed. Feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind him, attention totally on whatever it was that Powell was saying.
“So, you must be Ava.”
She was being addressed by another new airman, a young, acne-scarred African-American man who offered her a hand to shake. “WARHORSE said a lot about you.”
She shook it. “WARHORSE?”
“Your boy Adam there. That’s his callsign.”
“He never mentioned that…”
“Eh, he hates it.” The airman grinned. “Did he mention me? John Burgess, I’m going into the PJ pipeline with him.”
“Yeah, he did!” Ava nodded. “Nothing but good things.”
“I hope so, motherfucker took the top bunk over me for eight weeks!” He laughed, then self-censored. “Uh, sorry. Bleep.”
“It’s no problem. So…WARHORSE?”
“Couple’a reasons. Your boy can carry anything, he’s strong as shit, put a bag on him and he’ll run all day. So, we could have called him Packmule, but…y’know with a name like Arés…”
“Makes sense.” Ava agreed, grinning.
“Now the other reason is—”
“Goddammit BASEBALL, don’t you tell her!” Adam returned in time to gently clamp his hands over Ava’s ears. She giggled and wriggled free.
“Aww come on man, I’ve GOT to meet the girl brave enough to take you on.”
Ava frowned at him, ignoring whatever it was Adam was so desperate about. “Brave?”
Burgess grinned. “you know? The pants monster? Your boy here’s morning wood damn near took my eye out from across the room!”
“Wh–wow, really?” She’d seen Adam naked before of course, but that had been swimming, and he hadn’t been at anything like…full…
She censored her own mental film reel.
‘BASEBALL’ paused, then grimaced. “Ah. Shit. You, uh…didn’t know?”
Ava shook her head. Adam just glared.
“So you two haven’t–?”
Now both of them glared.
”…I’ll, uh,” Burgess backed away, pointing generally over his shoulder. “I’ll see you at the start of Indoc, brother.”
“I’ma kick your ass worse than the PT.” Adam warned him, though there was a hint of amusement under the warning.
“I deserve it!” Burgess declared, and left them in peace.
Adam snorted and caught Ava’s gaze. She was studying him with a grin of her own pulling at her cheeks, threatening to burst out into laughter, and it started to pull even harder when her eyebrows raised themselves at him.
He cleared his throat. “He’s…exaggerating.”
Her eyes flicked downwards. “Guess I’ll just have to see for myself sometime.”
She allowed the smile to finally break out in full once her back was turned. Never mind the uniform, the haircut and the precision, his expression in response to that had been pure old-school Adam.
It was good to know he was still essentially himself.
Gabriel was treating them to dinner, while Powell had made his apologies and jetted back North to return to Folctha. Adam and Ava sat together in the back seat of Gabe’s rented SUV on the drive into San Antonio proper, holding hands and talking quietly.
“Okay, so…why ‘BASEBALL’?” she asked eventually.
“Couple of reasons.”
“One cool, one embarrassing?”
“That’s pretty much it, yeah.” Adam nodded. “Burgess can throw. Says he was pitcher for his school team, and when we were practicing with dummy grenades…yeah.”
“And the embarrassing?”
“BASEBALL. For…more or less the same reason I’m WARHORSE. I don’t have to draw you a picture, do I?”
She laughed. “Please don’t!”
“We’re here.” Gabriel announced. He’d pulled the car into the parking lot of a steakhouse called “The Barn Door” which he’d looked up using the excuse ‘when in Rome…‘
It didn’t take long to seat them, in a low-lit corner with a good view of some rodeo photographs and the two-foot flames on the grill.
“So.” Gabriel broke the silence once they were seated and had glanced at the menus. “That was Basic, huh?”
“Yeah.” Adam agreed. “Weird, it seemed really hard at the time but now…I mean, I’d find it easy if I had to go through that a second time.”
“Eager to get on with PJ training?”
Adam smiled sheepishly. “Dreading it.” he said. “But, yeah. I said to Powell when he tried to warn me about it, y’know, people do pass it, and…it’ll be tough, but I’m gonna be one of them.”
Their waitress showed up. “Get y’all some drinks, folks?” she asked.
“Iced tea, please.” Gabe requested.
“Coke?” Adam asked.
“Sure! And for you honey?” she asked, addressing Ava.
“Diet coke, please.”
“Okay! Y’all ready to order, or do you need a few minutes?”
They looked around, determined that they were, and ordered the 24oz porterhouse for Adam, a catfish fillet for Ava and the Tenderloin for Gabriel. She gathered the menus.
“Okay! My name’s Rose, if y’all need anything just make eye contact and I’ll be right over to help. Drinks comin’ up!”
“So what happens after indoc?” Ava asked, once Rose had gone.
“Airborne training, survival, diving, mountaineering, medical training…”
“I mean,” she interrupted, “After all that, too. Are you going to be on Cimbrean, or…?”
“Maybe.” Adam said. “I’ve got some career choices coming up, and if it all goes right then hopefully I will, but if I’m not…”
“You two’ll just have to figure it out.” Gabe told them.
Their drinks arrived, and they chatted amiably about Cimbrean and the progress of the Reclamation Project.
Ava was in the middle of explaining how Byron group planes were soon going to carpet-bomb the Scar with saplings and seeds in shaped canisters that should embed in the ground and then rot away, spilling Terran plants into soil that had been hugely enriched by the same fungal and microbial action that had killed the native flora and fauna, when the main courses arrived.
She boggled at Adam’s steak. “Where the hell are you going to put that?” she demanded.
Adam just grinned and tucked in. “I’m a food vacuum nowadays.” he said, and devoured a cube of medium-rare beef.
Gabe clicked his tongue disapprovingly in the side of his mouth. “Enjoy it, Amigo!” he chided. “Take your time!”
“I AM enjoying it!” Adam reassured him, after swallowing. “That’s why there’s so much of it!”
Ava giggled, then stood up. “I’ll be right back.” she said, and vanished in the direction of the ladies’ room.
Adam was still watching her backside when Gabe tapped him on the upper arm. “Hey, Adam. Man talk for a second, while she’s gone. Okay?”
Adam blinked at him. “What’s up?”
“I love you both very much, right? I’m hoping for a future where you two have got a couple of beautiful kids, and…”
“Shut up and listen, man.” Gabe sighed. “That’s just what I want, okay? If you want different, fine. But tell me honestly—if you’re serious about her, then that’s the kind of thing you need to think about. Are you serious about her?”
“Totally.” Adam said, firmly.
“Good, because she’s serious about you too.” Gabe nodded, though his expression was still concerned. “Just…be careful, alright? You’re looking at two, three years of only getting to see each other every other month on a long weekend, or something. That’s going to be difficult.”
“We know. We talked about that.” Adam promised.
“And…” Adam trailed off, then shrugged.
“Adam, I’m proud of you right now, but don’t be dumb about this, okay? You can still be honor graduate and all that stuff and still fuck up your love life. Don’t…” it was Gabriel’s turn to pause, searching for the right turn of phrase. “Don’t forget to…”
“Dad. She’s tough. We’ve talked this over together, and…we’ll get through.” Adam reassured him.
“I know she’s tough. You both are. I just…” Gabriel sighed and gave up. “I just hope you’re both as tough as you think you are. Okay? I don’t want you to wind up hurting each other.”
“We love you too, Dad.”
Gabe gave him a sidelong hug. “Good to know.” he said. “I just needed to get that said.”
Adam nodded. “It’s heard. But…I’m sure we’re fine. After everything that’s happened…”
“You never heard about the last straw that broke the camel’s back, Amigo?”
Adam frowned. “She’s said she can cope. That’s good enough for me, Dad.”
Gabe sat back with an uncomfortable expression. “How—” he began, then paused. “She—”
Adam waited for him to finish. Or even get started. In the end Gabe just shook his head and hugged his son again.
“Alright, Amigo. If that’s good enough for you…”
Date Point: 5y 2m 3w AV
Dominion Embassy Station, Earth/Moon L1 Point, Sol.
Doctor Anees Hussein
“So this is Cruezzir?”
The Corti ambassador raised a hand. “Not…quite.” he revealed. “The Directorate was dead set against the idea of your species acquiring the original Cruezzir drug. In fact, we are now discontinuing it, and strongly advise that should a sample of the original fall into your possession, you should destroy it.”
“We will…take that under advisement.” Doctor Hussein assured him. “Though in that case, what is this on your desk?”
“A derivative, specifically designed for the human market with the intent of avoiding some future pitfalls.”
Medrà inclined his head in a strange way, as if reading something only he could see. “Used correctly—as a topical or therapeutic target injection, rather than permanently marinating the patient’s system in it—Cruezzir has no side effects whatsoever. None.” he revealed. “It is, I dare say, a masterpiece creation of the Directorate’s biolabs. That factor alone was sufficient for our anthropological researchers to take exception to giving you access to it.”
Hussein frowned. “I don’t follow you.” he said. “Where is the problem with a medicine that has no side-effects?”
Medrà mimicked a thin-lipped, prim smile. “Doctor, if I have learned one thing about your species these last few years, it is that, if dirt were edible, you would all be obese.”
“No insult is intended, you understand. You are from a dangerous world, I can only assume that to use and stockpile resources as rapaciously as you do was a necessary survival instinct for your genetic forebears.”
“As a medicine, though…” Hussein protested.
“We are not satisfied that it would remain a simple medicine. You already know of the one nicknamed the “Human Disaster”, which means in turn that you also how to synthesize Cruezzir in industrial quantities. All you need is a sample of the drug itself.” Medrà gestured oddly: it took Doctor Hussein a second to recall from his studies of alien body language that the gesture indicated concern. “We fear that Cruezzir injections and patches would become commonplace, even the norm, taking an already imposing species and making the pinnacle of your physical potential trivial to attain, rather than a lifelong pursuit which precludes the study of other, more…cerebral endeavors.”
Hussein considered his Corti counterpart for a second. “You make it sound like you want us to remain below our potential.”
“Your potential, doctor, is already intolerably ahead of any other species’.” Medrà countered. “If some semblance of balance and fairness are to be retained for the rest of us, then you must either be encouraged to remain below your potential, or else encouraged into isolation. The failure of that latter strategy is why the Directorate has appointed me.”
“To keep us down.”
“To remind you that you need to be kept down.” Medrà had at least perfected the knack of returning a human’s stare. Most aliens instinctively looked away. “Or shall I point to the ecological grafting you are performing at great expense on Cimbrean to remind you of that fact?”
“I believe you just did.”
Medrà picked up the phial on his desk again. “This version, this Cruezzir derivative, contains a limiting factor—resistance. Over time, any human who regularly uses it will steadily, but slowly, become increasingly immune. There are a few other changes, mostly designed to prevent the drug from being synthesized by your symbiotic bacteria but…suffice it to say we feel less uncomfortable releasing this for you to use than the medicine for which you actually asked. There will be no more Human Disasters with this derivative.”
He gestured out of the window, toward the Earth. From the L1 point where the Dominion embassy was anchored, it filled a respectable portion of the sky. “I believe your ancestry comes from a region responsible for the myth of a ‘jinn’, doctor?”
“Close enough.” Hussein conceded, diplomatically refraining from commenting that, as the Holy Quran had it, jinn were perfectly real.
“According to that myth, the ‘jinn’ would grant wishes, but would twist the wishes according to a literal interpretation of their wording, to the wisher’s detriment.” He offered the phial. “We, doctor, are twisting the wish according to a sensible interpretation of its intent, to the wisher’s and our own mutual benefit.”
Hussein considered his options, then gave up and took the phial. “In that case,” he said “having read the trade agreement and been advised on it…we accept the terms.”
They shook on it. Gently.
Date Point: 5y 2m 4w AV
I’ve only got three words to say about Indoc so far: Holy fucking SHIT.
This is really bringing me back down to earth.
I’m going to get through it though. No matter what.
Thinking of you,
Date Point: 5y 4m AV
Im sorry Ive not written you since last week. I did get your letter and I hope you know Id have written back if I could Ive just been too thrashed to even pick up a pen. Really the PT here is that hard. Im talking 20 solid hours of calisthenics…when there feeling kind. I swear Im not exaggerating.
Getting a reward today though—a good long letter session a whole hour! Everyone else is calling home or whatever but for me…wow just getting some quiet time to sit and think and write to you is like I never imagined Id think something so simple was such a big deal. I spent half of it just sitting and thinking and getting my head sorted out.
You know I said in one of my letters from basic that I kind of enjoy being shouted at now? Well that’s still true its hard to explain but if Im being shouted at then its kind of a compliment because the MTL knows I can do better and hes telling me so. I mean actual words of encouragement are nice too dont get me wrong but I can see now that it wouldnt get anybody through this.
There training us for the very worst you know? They want to be able to send us into anything and have us be strong enough that if we fail it was never possible in the first place. And theres no way to do that except the way they do it. Theyve been doing it for years they know what theyre doing here and I know that I can make it through this.
So yeah I hurt basically all the time Im tired basically all the time Im so wired that just getting a whole HOUR of quiet time feels like the biggest luxury in the world…but dont be sad for me baby because underneath it all I think Im actually kind of enjoying myself.
If that sounds weird…maybe it is I dont know?
I still struggle to eat enough. There giving me like 10000 calories a day or something insane like that thats a heck of a lot of food and with me not being a big guy some days its almost harder to get all of that food to fit in my belly than it is to do the actual PT.
Itd help if it was Dads waffles or something. A taste of home you know? I dont care how full I am if I had a plate of those right now they’d be gone. I know they were store-bought ones but it still counts as home cooking right?
I love you. I miss you every day and I think the reason is that for all the really big shit thats happened in the last few years youve been there through it all. The hardest part by a mile has been learning how to go through something this huge without you.
Im kinda sorry for that.
Date Point: 5y 4m 2d AV
Mail call had become the best part of Adam’s day, enough so to shake the ache right out of his abused muscles.
Baby, you’re not going through this without me: I read all your letters, and I write you back every time, but it’s not just that.
I may not be there with you doing the PT or whatever. But I pray for you every day, I think of you every minute, and knowing you’re thinking of me even with what you’re going through is what helps me too. You’ve been there for ME through all the really big shit of the last few years too, you know that?
I feel lonely a lot. No you, no Sara, no Hayley…I love (here Ava had written the word ‘your’ and then scribbled over it) Dad, but you can’t have a social life of just one person.
I guess we’re both learning how to cope with just being there for each other in spirit rather than in person, huh?
But believe me corazon, that’s all we need. I’m so proud of you.
Adam was smiling as he folded the letter up. “Good letter.”
“She ain’t here, bro. You’re talking to yourself again.” BASEBALL grinned at him.
“Beats your company.” Adam retorted, grinning back.
“Only company your midget ass gets is my belt buckle anyways, so that ain’t that surprising.”
“Hey that was almost witty. Must be ‘cause you sat down, I know your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen at ten thousand fucking feet when you stand up.”
Burgess beamed and stuck out a fist. “Motherfucker.”
Adam completed the fist pound. “Asshole.”
They were interrupted by the MTL, who entered the barracks and announced a briefing and lecture in ten minutes.
“What now?” BASEBALL wondered aloud.
They found out when they settled into their seats in the lecture hall six minutes later. There was the usual rigmarole of standing when the presenting officer—a Lieutenant with the surname “Reed” on his chest—entered.
“Be seated.” he ordered, and six backsides met chair. There was a minute or two of patient waiting while he entered his login and password and called up some files.
“This is a confidential, code-word SACRED STRANGER briefing. You will not share this material with anyone not possessing need-to-know for SACRED STRANGER.” Reed began. “Is that understood?”
There was a chorus of “Yes sir.”
Reed loaded up a presentation slide and Adam groaned inwardly. ‘Death by Powerpoint’ was a running military gag that he had so far been blessed to suffer only mildly from. He hoped that streak of good fortune would continue.
“Seven months ago,” Reed stated, lingering on the first slide, “The British Royal Navy’s two captured and refitted alien starships engaged in a skirmish with the Hunter blockade around Cimbrean. They acquitted themselves well in the battle, which was fought to rescue the crew of a refugee freighter who had unwittingly blundered into the Hunter fleet. You should all be familiar with the Hunters, if anybody here requires a refresher, raise your hand.”
Reed gave a shallow, satisfied nod and continued. “During the battle, a Special Boat Service team led by one Captain Owen Powell boarded the freighter and extracted its surviving crew. The operation was a resounding success, but Captain Powell and the commanding officers of HMS Myrmidon and HMS Caledonia recommended to the Ministry of Defence that a review be conducted into the requirements and viability of a dedicated force of spaceborne special operators capable of extravehicular activity, or EVA.”
“That review was shared with the Department of Defence and the Pentagon and the result is that we are now founding an international joint unit, provisionally known as the Spaceborne Operators Regiment, or SOR.”
“This is an initiative that’s still in its infancy. No commanding officers, no operators, no gear, no crest or motto, nothing.” He continued. “Its mission, however, is already well-understood. The SOR would serve to defend and protect the people and interests of Earth, Cimbrean and any future colonies which may arise from extraterrestrial threats. It will conduct search-and-rescue of stations and starships that become adrift or damaged, will provide humanitarian aid to castaways and those affected by disaster, and will be available to defend stations and large ships, as much as is possible, from Hunter strikes and piracy. These missions will also benefit the human race through propaganda, through the Dominion Development Credit bounties that are awarded for recovering liferafts, and by securing extraterrestrial technology from derelicts.”
He paused. “I should note, gentlemen, that when I mention ‘extraterrestrial threats’, I refer to any and all enemies of our species, including the alien force responsible for the destruction of San Diego, the exact nature of which is deemed need-to-know.”
Adam and Burgess exchanged glances.
Reed advanced the slideshow. It was now dominated by something that looked like a hybrid of a NASA spacesuit and an Interceptor body armour system, though sleeker than either.
“The defining equipment of Spaceborne Operators will be their Extra-Vehicular Military Action Space Suit, or EV-MASS. This has been designed by private-sector experts from the Hephaestus LLC on Ceres who hold records for most and longest extravehicular activity, working alongside experts from CQC Limited, who produce the Osprey Armor System.”
“Now, you’ve all been given a brief introduction to the SOR concept. A full briefing of this system and its capabilities, variants and requirements will be saved for those of you who choose to commit to joining the program. For now the important point is this: the EV-MASS is a fully functioning spacesuit designed to allow the operator to engage the enemy in the vacuum of space and maneuver in zero-gravity. That combined functionality means that it has a base weight of one hundred and three pounds, before gear and accessories.”
There was no breach of discipline as such, but all six of the PJ candidates exchanged glances. They were all strong enough to wear and use a suit that heavy, thanks to the intensive physical training of the pipeline, but doing so would suck. Remaining agile and mobile for prolonged periods under the combined weight of that suit and their bags, gun, equipment and maybe even a patient, who might even be wearing the same suit and all of their gear, all added up to a daunting prospect.
One of them put his hand up, and Reed pointed to him, inviting him to ask his question.
“Sir, if a man wearing one of those has to carry one of his buddies, that’s gotta be, uh…six hundred pounds at least. Hell, it could be a lot more. How’s anybody supposed to hump that kind of weight any kind of a serious distance?”
Reed acknowledged the question’s validity with a nod. “It’s a big ask.” he agreed. “The suit does contain some passive load-bearing structures which will help, but the operators wearing it will need to be exceedingly strong. Which is why we’re coming to you now, with…this.”
He closed the slideshow and opened a video.
“This is footage of Lance-Corporal Aaron Baxter, United States Marine Corps. Baxter was involved in a vehicle collision during a training exercise two weeks ago, and suffered a, uh…” Reed checked his notes, pronouncing the medical terminology slowly and with care. “A…posteriorly displaced…open comm-in-uted…intra-articular tibial plateau fracture with an…intimal tear of the…pop-lit-e-al artery.”
He looked up. “As I understand it, that basically means the poor bastard’s knee got flattened and everything broke into little bitty bits.”
“Right, you understand.” Reed noted, nodding. “This is a crippling injury, a career-ender. That knee’s never going to be the same again, and if he escapes amputation, getting it working again even half-normally is going to involve probably a prosthetic joint, and certainly a lot of physiotherapy and rehab. Ordinarily, Baxter would be out of a job and living on his VA benefits and medical care. Fortunately for him, he came along at exactly the right moment to be the guinea pig for a new medicine purchased from Extraterrestrial sources.”
While the footage of Baxter continued on one half of the screen, the other half began a quick animation detailing the origins and capabilities of the drug. “It’s called Cruezzir-Derivative Compound A, but for the purposes of common usage, we’re calling it Crue-D. Don’t ask me how, but it hugely accelerates and improves the healing process.” Reed continued. “Baxter went under the knife to have all those little bitty bits put back together and the plumbing fixed, and while they were at it, he let them inject this stuff right in there.”
On the screen, Baxter’s dressings were being removed. “This is him only thirty hours after the operation. Notice, there’s no surgical wound, nor a scar from the open fracture. That had closed up by the six hour mark, and If they’d put sutures in him, they’d have had to operate to get them back out again. Fortunately they foresaw that and only clamped the wound and compressed it. But when they X-rayed the kneecap at eight hours, they found out it was damn near perfectly intact. They kept him in bed for another day just to be sure, but…”
Baxter stood up, and jaws dropped around the room.
“That’s incredible.” somebody muttered.
“It’s goddamn alien space magic is what it is.” BASEBALL grunted.
Reed nodded agreement, letting the interruption slide. “And for the time being it looks like we’re stuck relying on the Corti to make it for us. When our scientists tried to figure out how it works in the lab, they say the samples just dissolved into water and some weird organic molecules, like it’s got a self-destruct built in. But the results are plain—Corporal Baxter is fit and well and back with his unit, under observation for long-term side effects but otherwise unscathed after what should have been the end of a promising career as a US marine.”
He turned off the screen. “So…what does this have to do with the six of you?” he asked, rhetorically. “The short version is that with the physical demands of the SOR program being so high-end, we want to use this stuff therapeutically during the physical training. Slap-patches, joint injections…You’re all familiar with the theory behind muscle gains?”
There was general nodding. “Good. But to spell it out for the sake of clarity, the very basic version is that the muscles and ligaments suffer minor damage, and heal stronger than they were before.”
“With this stuff,” he continued “we think we can take that process to a new level. Completely thrash the trainee during the day, then they heal perfectly overnight thanks to a contact patch of Crue-D. Throw in some of the latest developments in Sports Science and we think it’s possible to produce operators whose bodies exist on the absolute limit of what’s humanly possible.”
One of the others put his hand up. “Begging your pardon sir, but…You want us to do that?”
“I’m putting it out there for you to think about. Like I said, the SOR is still in its infancy. We’ve got all the necessary infrastructure in place, now all that’s needed are volunteers. Any such volunteers will be plucked from the pararescue pipeline and put onto the SOR highway instead. This will closely mirror—and often take place alongside—pararescue training, but will be even more physically intense, and will then be followed by SOR-specific training and possibly astronaut training as well. Any questions?”
Several hands went up. Reed acknowledged one of them with a point of his pen.
“Sir, what are the risks here?”
“We’re assured that, when used correctly, Crue-D has no side effects. And to head off the next question, the only incorrect use we know of was a couple of cases where the original medicine—Cruezzir—entered the patient’s gut biome, where it was absorbed by intestinal bacteria which mutated and began to produce a constant supply.”
“What happens when that happens?”
“According to the Corti, the subject undergoes rapid muscle growth, an increase in bone density, and…basically reaches their maximum physical potential without the need to exercise their way there, not to mention becoming permanently able to heal from even quite serious injuries at a remarkable rate. There’s also some suggestion that they become biologically immortal and may experience improved skill-learning and the tapping of latent genetic potential that exists inside the human genome, such as the ability to see some way into the infrared.”
There was silence, then somebody else put their hand up. “Begging your pardon sir, but why the hell aren’t we going with that?”
“One, because Crue-D has been modified to preclude exactly that scenario because it scares the bejesus out of the Corti. Two, because it seems to come at a serious cost to the subject’s mental health.” Reed explained. “The two known cases so far demonstrated reckless, self-destructive behaviour and possible signs of a schizophrenic or Dissociative Identity disorder, respectively.”
“Besides that,” he continued “We have no idea if that’s just in the short-term. The long-term effects of Crue-D applied topically in a targeted and safe fashion, we are assured, are nil. Nothing is known about the long-term consequences of keeping the human body indefinitely soaked in the original Cruezzir.”
He cleared his throat. “The only remaining thing that could be a risk factor would be nutrition. You’ll be packing on muscle and bone mass at such an incredible rate that your diets will have to be strictly controlled down to the last milligram and calorie. Every snack, every meal. You won’t even be able to grab a burger without planning and training ramp-down, and if done incorrectly you might find yourself suffering from malnutrition. At the very least it would be a wasted opportunity. At worst, well…”
This was met with thoughtful silence. Reed let them mull it over for a moment, then spoke again.
“This is, obviously, an enormous decision. You would not be here if you were so impulsive as to just take it on immediate notice, which is why we’ve informed you today so you can have your weekends to consider it. This briefing will continue on Monday at fourteen hundred hours. Dismissed.”
“You’re going for it, ain’tcha?”
Adam looked up. He’d been considering how to write back to Ava, tell her that his training would go on for at least another two years beyond what they had discussed, without breaching confidentiality or classification. He knew she’d accept that he couldn’t discuss such things with her, but she still deserved an explanation, and he was carefully assembling that explanation in his head.
“This is what I got in for.” he said, simply. “I knew there had to be aliens involved somewhere, and…yeah.”
BASEBALL sat down. “You did?”
“Dude, antimatter? Nobody on Earth’s got that shit.”
“We’ve got alien healy-juice though. They didn’t tell me about that shit when I first heard about the SOR.”
Adam nodded. “Yeah.” he said. “That one’s new on me, too.”
“Man, I ain’t sure about this Crue-D stuff.” BASEBALL rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I knew too many guys got ‘roided up in school…You sure you’re not rushing into this?”
“These ain’t roids. This shit heals you stronger, man!”
“Yeah, but…man, you trust anything ET makes?”
Adam sighed. “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, Base. The SOR’s going to be going up against the group that killed my mom and my friends. That’s why I joined in the first place—’cause a group like that, needs people fighting them, you know? I don’t know if I trust ET, but I sure as hell trust us, you know?”
“So you’re going for it, then?”
”…Okay. I’m with you, Hoss.”
Adam paused: “Base, bro, you don’t have to.”
“Bullshit. We’re a good team, you’re the heavy lifting motherfucker, I’m the brains of the outfit.”
Adam laughed and gave him the finger.
BASEBALL laughed too, then reached out, flipped Adam’s hand over, grabbed it in a knuckle-creaking handshake and dragged him in for a solid masculine slam-hug.
“Besides, we get to be fuckin’ astronauts.” he added. “You KNOW that’s a ticket to pussy.”
Adam laughed again “Alright, you sentimental fuck. You’re with me…I appreciate it.”
Baby, I’m sorry to do this to you, but there’s a career opportunity come up that’s just perfect for me. It’s everything I got into the military to accomplish. I wish I could discuss it with you, but it’s all confidential.
The downside is that the training is two years longer than we’d planned for, and it’s going to be really hard to get the time to visit you during those two years.
I wish there was time for us to talk about it properly, but they want my answer on whether or not I’m signing up for this thing on Monday, and there’s just not time for me to get back and with the emails only updating once a day, by the time your reply gets to me, it’ll be Monday anyway, so…
I’m sorry Ava. But this is too perfect to pass up.
Write me back. I’ll understand if you’re mad.
Date Point: 5y 4m 5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Oh my God, Ava!”
Jessica had never been the kind of teacher who believe in keeping an emotional distance from her students, and so when Ava shuffled into the classroom a quarter hour early and looking totally ruined, she dropped everything and dashed over to give the younger woman a hug. “What happened?”
Ava ran a shaking hand through unbrushed, unwashed hair and lost whatever grip on her composure she’d had, burying herself in Jess’ sweater and shaking fiercely.
Jess just held her until finally Ava managed to pull herself together and straighten up. “What happened?”
“I just…I checked my emails, and there’s one from Adam, and…” Ava looked away and made an angered expression at herself, fighting to stay in control. “He changed the plan.”
“Changed the…? I don’t understand.”
“I was fine with him doing two years of pararescue training and some deployments, and…I don’t know! All that, we’d got it sorted out and I was fine with it! But now he’s talking about four years of training and maybe not being able to see each other at all in those extra couple of years! And who knows how long after that!” Ava threw her hands up and engaged anger circuits that Jess had never seen in her before.
“Que se supone que haga? Él no me preguntó, él no me habla de ello …el hijo de puta me acaba de enviar una CARTA DE MIERDA y espera que yo sea bien! Eso pendejo desconsiderado! Eh?”
Jess sat on a desk. “I don’t speak Spanish, Ava.” she pointed out, gently. “But watch your language, the kids’ll be here soon.”
Ava went still, then deflated and sat down, miserably. “He just…it’s not just his life.” she complained.
Jess gave her a moment to be silent. When Ava wiped her eyes and began to sort herself out, she took the opportunity to be constructive. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
Ava made a bitter little noise. “I should have learned this by now, shouldn’t I? Don’t plan for anything, because tomorrow you might get nuked.”
“So what I’m going to do is…whatever seems like a good idea at the time.” Ava said.
“So what seems like a good idea right now?”
“Hah! Dumping his ass.” but Ava was shaking her head to indicate that she had nothing of the sort in mind. “But…whatever, so he’s been an insensitive jerk and made a huge decision without me. So what? At least he cares. He still loves me, and I love him too, even if he’s been a huge jackass right now.”
“So…?” Jessica repeated.
“So I guess what seems like a good idea is just…forgive him and try to be happy.” Ava shrugged. “Be happy in the moment, right? That’s what our Gaoians are so into. And I…I think I’d be unhappier without him.”
She sighed, and stretched. “What do you think?”
Jess considered the question. “I guess my marriage broke up because we weren’t able to forgive when we hurt each other.” she conceded in the end. “I don’t know, there’s so many arguments either way, I guess you do just have to go with whatever seems like a good idea at the time.”
“Like he did.”
“Like he did.” Jess agreed. “I think that’s what love is, is understanding when one of you comes first. Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s him.”
She hesitated, then decided to put her money where her mouth was and say what seemed like a good idea at the time. “And…Ava, he’s a soldier now. Soldiers…they don’t always come back. I think you’re going to need to get used to trying to live as well as you can ‘in the moment’ and not…and figure out how you’re going to get by without him, if that ever happens.”
A banging in the hallways made them both look up—it was the clear sound of the class starting to arrive. “If you want to borrow a hairbrush, there’s one in my office, on the desk.” Jess offered.
Ava smiled. It wasn’t a strong smile, but it was genuine. “Thanks, Jess. I needed…thank you.”
Jess gave her another hug. “I hope I helped.”
Ava nodded, then slipped out the other door a few seconds before the class started to enter, in usual boisterous mode.
Jess straightened and got herself back into teacher mode. The first, and hopefully worst, of the day’s crises was dealt with.
Dear Mr. Arés,
As I said to you when Ava first arrived at our school, she has always struck me as being much more intelligent than she believes herself to be. I am very pleased to tell you that, over the last few months, she has vindicated my belief in her and excelled at her studies. As you know, the free-form approach to schooling that we use at this school does not allow me to break down her performance by subject, but she has achieved outstanding performance in every single module she has chosen to pursue.
As the sole member of our senior group, with the next students not due to enter that group for another three years, she does however pose a slight administrative problem for the school, which I believe would be best resolved by graduating her at the end of this coming summer term and then taking her on over the coming school year as a teaching assistant. This will not only enable her to continue to study ahead of her university plans, but will give her some practical experience and income that will serve her in good stead.
She has indicated to me that she wishes to attend the London School of Economics to study for a career in photojournalism. Challenging though this choice of career will doubtless be, I have complete confidence that she will excel in it.
Her combined overall grade for this semester is: A.
Dr. J. A. B. Olmstead Junior and Senior Groups Tutor, Folctha Comprehensive School.
“Wow…that’s, uh, easily the best report card I ever had.”
Gabriel took off his reading glasses. “Yeah?”
Ava sighed. “Every other one I ever had always had the words ‘could do better’ in it.” She said. “I guess they were right, huh?”
“I guess they were.” Gabriel agreed, though he left out his opinion that if her performance had previously been lackluster then that probably reflected more on the education system than on Ava herself. “You gonna go for it?”
She hesitated. “Do you…think I should?”
“It sounds like an excellent opportunity.” Gabriel told her. “Experience, money and education all in one go? Chances like that don’t come along too often.”
Gabriel knew what the trepidation was about. “Why not discuss it with Doctor Olmstead?” He suggested. “If you want plenty of time to get out there and practice your photography, maybe she can help.”
Ava nodded and pulled the camera out of her handbag. She was constantly fiddling with it nowadays, usually with a frown. “I do need to practice more. I keep looking at Sara’s old pictures and seeing…you know, seeing new things in them. Things she was doing that I didn’t even know how to see before…”
She sighed. “She was…really talented, Gabe. I want to try and do justice to her, try and…bring back some of her spark, but I don’t think I can.”
“Even if you don’t,” Gabriel told her. “In trying, you’ll find your own talent. Don’t think of it as bringing back her spark, but as…I dunno, reincarnating it. Same spirit, but different, yeah?”
She put the camera away, then stood up and kissed him on the forehead. “I’d better get home.” she said.
“See you tomorrow?”
Date Point: 5y 5m 1w AV
Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, USA, Earth
Indoc had taught Adam a trick. It had taught him how to notice that he was exhausted and in pain, but to treat those facts as an abstract.
It was a useful trick. One that kept his feet kicking, hour upon hour upon hour, in a pool of cold water, with his goggles flooded and his muscles saturated with lactic acid. The mind went to a quiet place without thought, where the absence of any stimulation but the physical exertion didn’t matter, and where the exertion itself was not the immediate, intimate issue it might once have been, but was instead…academic. It wasn’t even tedious—his ego was so shut down as to not care that he’d received no real intellectual stimulation for hours.
There was just the task: Keep kicking.
In that mode, he might have gone on until his body finally gave out. And that, he suspected on those rare occasions where he was permitted to be lucid, was the point.
Besides, pool days were comparatively gentle, compared to the weight sessions. Those were the days when the Crue-D came out in force, when muscles sprained and ligaments tore and were forced to mend almost on the spot. You worked until you broke, and were then fixed. And then, while you healed, you trained something else.
If he hadn’t learned how to notice his pain without experiencing it, he couldn’t have borne it.
There was just the task: Keep lifting.
He wasn’t even waiting. He was just doing, until the whistle blow summoned him out of his trance and allowed him to stop doing again. Allowed him, once he was out of the pool, to become Adam again and realise just how trashed and tired he really was.
Adam, who was packing on muscle at an incredible rate. He’d known that he would, of course. The SOR briefing had been clear on that. But it was still jarring sometimes to look at himself and recall that just two years ago he’d been a skinny teenager who didn’t even fill out the small shirts in the store, whereas he now wore Extra-large sized shirts like a second skin.
He met BASEBALL’s eye as they lined up alongside the pararescue candidates. They stood out, now, clearly on a different career path. The PJs were strong as hell, but Adam and BASEBALL were both much, much bigger. Their ability to wriggle into tight places had been sacrificed to prioritize the raw power they needed to remain mobile and active under crushingly heavy loads.
Being lined up after an exercise was nothing new—it had hitherto been the prelude to another task. This time was different. This time the MTLs lined up in front of them, at attention, and Master Sergeant Allen—the team leader—stepped forward, studying them carefully.
Devastated as they were by what must have been a truly epic session in the pool, every one of the airmen held at attention perfectly. Finally, he nodded.
“Airmen.” he said. “You have now completed the Indoctrination section of your Pararescue training. You have done something that is literally better than a one in a million event—precious few men have ever accomplished this task. You’re not Pararescuemen yet, but as of today, you’ve proven that you are all worthy to follow in the green Footsteps of the giants of your chosen unit. You have cleared the first and most difficult hurdle on the road to your maroon beret, and it has been our honor and privilege as your Military Training Leaders to witness this feat.”
He saluted, as did all the other MTLs. The exhausted airmen returned a precision salute with equal snappy enthusiasm. “Congratulations.”
The salute was held for a moment, then relaxed, and the MTLs softened with it, advancing forward to exchange handshakes, hugs and smiles with men they’d been yelling at only minutes before.
Adam was running on fumes, but he joined in gladly. He’d known he could do it.
Finally, the congratulations died down. Master Sergeant Allen finally called an end to it. “Alright, get back to your dorms and get some sleep.” he ordered. “And sleep in. Tomorrow is a Liberty day. Get checked out, get laundry done. Don’t you worry about your gear just this once, we’ll take care of it. You’ve earned it.”
He paused, then smiled. “But don’t get stupid.” he added. “training resumes the next day.”
Date Point: 5y 9m 3w AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Ah. I thought so.”
Gabriel looked up from toying with his glass of water. The waiters of Folctha’s first restaurant—and what a restaurant it was!—had been discreetly keeping him supplied with water for a few minutes now. Ava had spent her first paycheck arranging for him and ‘someone else’ to be among the place’s first diners.
He had to admit, he was intrigued. He hadn’t been on a date in years, and never on a blind date. Though, like the woman who had just said ‘I thought so’, he’d had a sneaking suspicion he knew who it would be.
“Wow!” he commented. He’d been right, but he barely recognised her.
Jess Olmstead giggled. “That’s a good start!”
Gabriel stood and pulled back a seat for her. “Heartfelt.” he promised, as she settled into it, carefully dropping her handbag beneath her. Whenever he’d interacted with Jess before she’d been in teacher mode, favouring a black cardigan and a red scarf with a long skirt. Comfortable, sensible and plain.
For tonight, she’d worn something substantially sleeker in dark blue, with a neckline that pulled at the eyes, punctuated by an attention-grabbing, slim little minimalist necklace and a smile that said ‘go ahead and look’. Her hair was out of its usual loose ponytail and swept into something just a little bit more elaborate. Gabe had enough experience with women to know just how much time and agonising would have gone into crafting such an apparently effortless appearance, and knew enough about perfume to scent that she was wearing an expensive one.
Good signs, especially considering that she claimed to have suspected who her date was.
“Ava’s got to be so proud of herself right now, playing matchmaker.” he noted, sitting down again.
“Well, I had my suspicions.” Jess confessed. “There aren’t many other people she could have set me up on a date with.”
“And yet, here we are.”
“Here we are.” Gabe agreed, mirroring her smile and pleased that he’d put similar effort into his own appearance, between getting the fit of his suit adjusted and treating himself to a wet shave. He’d even subtly dipped into Adam’s left-behind stash of “manscaping” products, which had been a strange experience for him, being of a generation of men that didn’t traditionally wear cosmetics of any kind. Ava had reassured him that the result was dashing and sophisticated, especially when coupled with his cane.
The maitre’d spun by with the wine list and a recommendation, which they agreed to with nods and murmurs.
“She was pretty thrilled with your recommendation.” He revealed. “So was I. I think it’s exactly what she needs.”
“I hope so.” Jessica poured herself a small glass of water from the complimentary jug between them. “She’s…an amazing person, really. Her and your son both.”
“Don’t I know it.” Gabriel agreed. “I don’t think I’d be coping so well if I wasn’t so proud of them both.”
“Yes, I heard Adam was an ‘honor graduate’?”
“I barely recognised him!” Gabriel said. “He walked differently, he looked around differently, he was so much more…focused.” He sighed. “I guess the military suits him. On the one hand I’m pleased, but on the other…you know, he’s signing up for a very dangerous life. After everything that’s happened…”
Jess leaned forward, unconsciously echoing his sigh. “Heaven help us if we ever get used to the idea of our kids doing dangerous work.” she commented, and nodded along when he nodded.
“Si. He’s his own man, and Ava’s her own woman. I just wish I knew how to make their lives…happier.”
Jess smiled. “Start by making your own life happier.” she suggested.
“Well, that’s why I came down here.” Gabriel said.
Jess smiled and sipped her water. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“You think it’s that simple?” Gabriel asked. “That I’ll help them by helping myself?”
“I do.” Jess nodded. “And they’ll help you by helping themselves. It’s plain how much the three of you love one another.”
The wine arrived along with a couple of slim menus, which distracted them both for a few minutes as they mulled over their options and ordered.
“Like you said.” Gabe continued once their orders were placed. “They’re amazing people. With everything that’s happened they’ve only grown tougher and more mature.”
“What about you?” Jess asked him.
Gabe just shrugged a little. “A little weaker in some ways, a little stronger in others.” he suggested. “I’m ready to date again, for instance. That’s a big step forward for me.”
“You still held a bit of a candle for your ex? I know it took me ages to get over my divorce…”
”…No, I don’t think that’s it.” Gabe mulled it over. “I think I was more…bruised and weary, if that makes sense?”
“I understand.” Jess nodded, fiddling with the stem of her glass and listening to him with her chin on her hand.
“What about you, does your ex-husband know you’re living on an alien world nowadays?”
Jess giggled. “My ex-wife and I haven’t spoken in years.” she said. “I have no idea what she’s doing with her life, and I haven’t let her know what I’m doing with mine.”
Gabriel cleared his throat. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She reassured him. “I only mention it when it’s relevant, and it’s only relevant with people who…”
She just winked at him. Her nose wrinkled a little when she did so, and Gabriel practically fell in love on the spot.
He raised his glass. “To a good first date.” he proposed.
She raised her eyebrows, picking up the wine glass but not yet meeting his toast. “First date?”
“First date.” he repeated, projecting as much confidence as he could muster.
She smiled, causing her nose to wrinkle again, and her glass rang against his.
“Is it the quality of the wine, do you think, or how much of it we had?”
Gabriel laughed. “A little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.” he suggested. Neither of them were drunk as such, but they both definitely had a happy buzz on, warming and rounding off the night as he walked her home with an arm around her waist. She seemed very happy to be going at his slow, limping pace.
“I think you’re right…aww, we’re at my house already?”
Gabriel studied it. Jess lived in the same kind of tiny chalet as had been given to Adam and Ava, like most of the colonists. He knew that Sir Jeremy was still handling the minutiae of bringing in contractors to establish more permanent and comfortable housing, but that project had only just begun.
“That’s one of the perks of being colonial security chief.” he said. “My apartment’s even bigger than the one I had back in San Diego.”
“Yep. Want to see?”
Jess laughed. “Oh, Gabe.” she chided. “I think we’d at least better have a couple more dates before you show me how big your…” she paused, cheekily. “…apartment is.”
“Whenever you want, wherever you want.” he replied.
“Tuesday, same place and time?” she suggested.
“Absolutely.” he agreed.
“Good, because I really enjoyed myself tonight.”
He turned towards her, still with his arm on her waist. “You wanna round it off with a goodnight kiss?”
She did so. It was a good one too, several seconds of gentle, smiling lip contact with a hand on his cheek that promised better things to come, underlined by a second, shorter one just after they separated.
They didn’t say anything else. She just trailed her hand in his as she let herself into her chalet, letting go only in time to blow him a kiss and close the door.
Gabriel Arés walked home with the largest smile on his face that he’d worn in years.
Date Point: 5y 11m 1w AV
Folctha colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Rather than hobbling through the living room and opening the door, Gabriel was in the habit of shouting “Come on in, Ava!” when the doorbell rang.
She was the only one who used it—literally everyone else in the colony knocked. It was becoming one of those Cimbrean quirks, the sign of a local, insofar as anybody COULD be local in a town so young.
Ava let herself in and gave him a daughterly kiss on the cheek. Gabriel knew better than to comment that she looked a mess—her eyes were dark and pinkish, and she obviously hadn’t brushed her hair. “Cup of coffee?” He asked.
She nodded and slumped down at the table. “That.” she said. “Would be amazing.”
“Ah, I stayed up all night doing my part of the end-of-semester marking so I wouldn’t have it to do while Adam’s around.”
“He’s not due back until tomorrow.” Gabriel pointed out. His kitchen faucet had a mode to deliver boiling water, and he used it to fill the cafetier with his favoured blend of Galapagos coffee—a rare treat. Sure, Ava adulterated hers with so much cream and sugar that it was barely recognisable, and a bit of a waste, but he figured it must still be better behind all that than just the instant stuff.
“Yeah, but…it’s his birthday, so I can’t sleep.” Ava gave him a little smile that said she knew just how nonsensical that was.
“You’re that nervous at seeing him again?” Gabriel asked, leaning against the counter while the coffee brewed.
“For, like…a whole bunch of reasons.” Ava agreed.
“Eh, don’t worry so much.” Gabriel told her fondly. “if you two manage to break the bed or something, I’ll fix it.”
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. Her exclamation had been so guilelessly teenage that it was like a note of pure honesty in the room—there couldn’t have been a conscious decision to call him that involved. “Dad, huh?” he asked, softly.
She’d gone beet red, but she stood up and hugged him. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Hey.” he stroked her hair down, as much to get it out of his face as to reassure her. “You’re a daughter to me as well, you know? I couldn’t have asked for better.”
Ava took the compliment well, sitting down again and tidying herself up a little with a smile as Gabriel depressed the plunger on his cafetier and served.
“I um…” she began. “I guess now that that’s out there, I should…there’s something I want you to know.”
“You sure?” Gabriel asked, catching her nervousness.
Ava swallowed and nodded. “I guess if I’ve learned anything these last couple of years, it’s to never leave things un-said.” she shrugged.
A news reel of different emotions rapid-fired across Gabriel’s face, but he sat down and said nothing, letting Ava take her time.
“I miss my parents.” she said, finally. “It’s…so nice to have a parent again, I love you. You took me in, you’ve been everything I needed but…”
“I understand.” Gabriel said softly. “There’s no substitute for the original. Hell, I miss my folks.”
“No, that’s not it…” Ava sighed, then wiped her eyes. “I feel really guilty whenever I think this, but I kind of feel like…like you’ve been a better father to me. You’re here, you’ve always been here for Adam, and you’ve been here for me too. I hate to say it, but my parents’ idea of being good parents was just to, to buy me stuff. They gave me whatever I asked for but they didn’t really…I don’t know…”
“They gave you what you asked for, which maybe wasn’t what you needed?” Gabriel finished.
”…Papa would never have joked about fixing the bed.” Ava said. “And…Mom would have told me off for not brushing my hair, but you asked if I was feeling okay. Stuff like that, that you do for me and for Adam. You treat us like a, like you’re our friend as well as our dad. I miss them, but…they treated me more like a doll or a…a pet or a trophy sometimes.”
Gabriel handed her a clean tissue, which she made grateful use of. “You don’t need to feel guilty of that, you know.” he said.
“I know that up here.” Ava tapped her scalp, then bunched a fist between her breasts and knocked on her sternum. “but…”
Gabe scooted round the table and hugged her. “It means a lot.” he promised. “I try but…it’s good to know you think I’m doing a good job.”
She smiled. “I’m glad I got that out there.”
Gabe laughed a little. “Go home and sleep.” he suggested. “You’re going to need it, but you’re welcome to come round, join Jess and me for dinner this evening.”
“I’d like that.” she told him, and stood up.
“Go. Sleep. Nos vemos.”
“Hasta luego, papá.”
Date Point: 5y 11m 1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The passenger jump array had been expanded again during the year of Adam’s absence, but they’d kept the glass wall, allowing friends and family to witness the arrivals and departures.
There were a lot of them these days. Byron Group employees headed home for Christmas, travellers from Earth visiting Cimbrean for the same…
And Adam’s face on a nearly unrecognisable body.
Ava’s jaw threatened to drop. Adam had warned her, as best he could, about what to expect from the fitness regime he’d been on, but she hadn’t been prepared for this.
Sure, he’d been fit before leaving and at the end of Basic. Buff, even. But the Adam who caught her gaze and smiled that same winning, puppyish smile at her was getting to the point where the word “buff” was no longer quite adequate. He was…
He was fucking HOT.
A year of living alone had inevitably resulted in fantasizing and…well, in entertaining herself as best she could, and Ava had assembled a sizable folder on her tablet full of big strong guys. While knowing that he was going to come back big and strong had almost certainly played a role in shaping her tastes that way, Adam would not have looked out of place in that folder.
She made a mental note to add some pictures of him to it.
His muscles were as firm and dense as teak when they hugged, and he made her feel featherlight when he picked her up and spun her around, beaming.
“GOD I missed you.”
She sighed happily and kissed him. “Your letters just…wow, they didn’t do justice. Look at you!”
He looked down and spread his arms. “You like?”
He turned around, and Ava had to fight to stop herself from automatically biting her lower lip. “Yeah…” she squeaked. “I mean, you were pretty before, but…”
They became aware that several bystanders were able to overhear them, to judge by the amused glances they were attracting, and shared a bit of a blush. Adam shouldered his bag with a weighty thump. “Am I…staying with you?”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
“I’ve learned not to make assumptions.” he replied, clearly pleased by the response, then looked around. “Hey, where’s Dad?”
“He’s cooking Thanksgiving dinner. We’re going round there in a couple hours.”
“But Thanksgiving was last month.” Adam pointed out.
“Yeah, but you missed it.” she retorted. “And it was your birthday yesterday, so…”
“Does it work that way?”
“It does now.”
He laughed. “That works.”
“Wow. Okay. Guess you’re opening the jars tonight, Amigo.”
Adam laughed, and hugged his dad, gently. “Easy.” he said, then smiled at Jessica, who was hovering in the background with a slightly stunned expression. “Hey Jess.”
”’Hey’ yourself!” she replied. “Good God you’ve changed since I last saw you.”
“Wasn’t easy.” he told her. “Gotta tell ya, hearing you and Dad were dating really picked me up when I was having a rough time with the EMT training.”
“You were struggling with that?” Ava asked, hanging up her jacket and sitting down at Gabriel’s dinner table, while Gabriel returned to the kitchen. The whole apartment smelled of turkey and potatoes.
“Yeah. Think I’ve learned just enough about medicine now to know that I know basically nothing about medicine. It’s…crazy.” he sighed. “And for a while there I just wasn’t getting it, you know? My buddy BASEBALL—you remember BASEBALL?”
Ava giggled. “Hard to forget.”
He laughed. “Right. Well, he was kicking my ass. He’s a total natural. Me…I mean, I’m starting to get it now, but for a long while there, getting all that knowledge to stay in my head was damn near impossible. You’ve got to learn a lot of the academic stuff before you can start working on the practical, you know?”
“You always were more of a hands-on kinda guy.” Gabriel noted, from the kitchen. Jess nodded, smiling and looking up at the ceiling with an ‘oh yeah’ expression.
“You were okay though?” she asked.
“Ah, y’know. I was just…frustrated.” Adam’s chair creaked as he sat down next to Ava. “Like, I’d gone through all the pain of Indoc and all that PT and everything, and here I was struggling with what I’d thought was gonna be the easy bit. So yeah, the good news from home helped there. Made me feel positive again, and that helped me get past the block. Can’t say I’m ever going to be a great medic, but I’m not gonna be a bad medic, either.”
“So you approve?” Gabe asked, appearing with the plates.
“Oh come on, Dad! I mean, of course I do, but you don’t need my approval.”
Jess and Gabe exchanged a happy glance, and both headed into the kitchen.
“Guess this is a family Thanksgiving then.” Ava commented, snuggling up next to Adam.
“Late though it is.” Gabe agreed, reappearing with the roast potatoes. “Adam, put those muscles to use Amigo, bring the turkey through?”
Adam laughed and did so, retrieving a bird the size of a dog from the oven which he hefted easily on one oven-gloved hand. “Where did you get this?”
“Cimbrean wild turkey.” Jess revealed. “They’re part of the ecosystem reconstruction.”
“No shit? What else is out there?”
“Bobcats, bats, mice, eels, eagles…” Ava smiled. “From what Hayley Tisdale was telling me, they’re throwing a whole bunch of different species into the mix and letting natural selection do the rest.”
“They’re talking about deer and wolves, too.” Jess added. “It’s not all going perfectly right—I heard the eagles especially are struggling. Apparently the low gravity throws off their instincts when they’re swooping in on top of something, and they struggle to hunt at first.”
“How is Hayley?” Adam asked.
“She’s…She and Marc, they’re both okay. Did I tell you they had a little girl?”
”…Yeah, you did. Hope?”
“Hope. That’s right.” Ava nodded. “She was gonna come back to Folctha after the birth but the medical advice was it’s probably not good for a kid to live in low gravity until at least their second growth spurt which is, what? Ten or eleven years? And even then…”
“Right.” Adam nodded.
“So, they’re living in London nowadays, working for the Reclamation Project. Something about…GMO plants that are better suited to Cimbrean’s soil, gravity and sunlight.”
Gabe set down the last of the gravy, vegetables and sauces, and glanced around the table, looking happier and less stressed than Adam could remember seeing him in a long time. “So…Thanksgiving. It’s been a rough and crazy few years, and…you know, I can’t remember the last time we actually did this. I just wanted you to know how thankful I am to have the three of you in my life.”
Jess smiled, and murmured a “Hear, hear.”
Gabe and Ava exchanged glances, and bowed their heads in prayer. Jess just put her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand, watching them with a faint smile.
It was a skill he hadn’t been given much opportunity to practice. Constant PT, constant education, interspersed only with meals, sleep and only a little leisure time (most of which had been taken up by letters and Madden) hadn’t made for a contemplative year. He’d learned to enjoy moments, though, and this moment was…
Warm. Comfortable. He shut his eyes and let it wash over him—the gentle breathing, the wall clock marking away the seconds, the buzz of the kitchen light and hum of the oven fan, the warmth of Ava sitting next to him, the soft sound of his Dad praying under his breath…
He opened his eyes when Gabriel murmured an “Amen”, and looked up.
“So…” he asked. “What are the rest of you having?”
Date Point: Boxing Day, 5y 11m 2w AV
Adam wasn’t yet asleep, but it still took him a couple of seconds to register the knock on his door.
He sat up a bit “Ava?”
She called through the door. “Can I come in?”
She’d left the hall light on and leaned against the door frame, backlit by it, and Adam just had to stare. She was wearing one of his t-shirts, a thin white one. The shirt itself wasn’t blocking any of the light from behind her, and the varying depth of shadow her body made under it was…
Amazing. Sexy. Gorgeous. He could just about make out her nipples by the shadows they cast across the fabric, and the shirt was just short enough to create a fascinating dark triangle with her thighs. When he looked up at her face, she was breathing heavily through slightly parted lips.
“Past midnight?” he asked.
She laughed, nervously. “Happy birthday to me.”
“Deja vu.” he observed. She laughed a little again, and took a pace forward, loitering at the end of the bed.
“I’ve been…kind of regretting that, I, uh…I chickened out last time.” she confessed.
“Ch–uh, chickened out?”
She knelt on the edge of his bed and crawled up it like a predatory cat to kiss him.
It was a different kiss to any they’d shared before—a fiercer, more adult one. He was still mind-blanked by it when she grabbed his wrist and guided his hand firmly onto flesh that was so warm it almost felt like she’d burn the skin off his palm.
He took the hint and put his free hand on the back of her head, pulling her into the kiss. By the time it came to a natural conclusion she was pressed right up against him, every warm inch of her, and his roaming hands had discovered that she wasn’t wearing so much as a stray thread under that shirt.
All of that notwithstanding, though, she was trembling.
“You sure you’re ready?” he asked.
“I am.” she promised, and straddled his lap, grinding against him and making him acutely aware of just how little and thin the blanket was, knowing how close which bits of him were to which bits of her. There was a scent in the room he’d never smelled before, and it was having an urgent effect on some very ancient parts of his brain.
He could feel every inch of his body pulsing, shaken by a heart that was suddenly hammering away as hard as if he was back in Indoc. Was feeling sick and shaky the right response here? It was all his body seemed to know how to do. For all he wanted to be suave and confident and passionate with her, deep inside he was a knot of anxiety and trepidation. So was she, judging by the way she froze when her hand paused in trailing down his body, just short if its destination.
“You’re scared.” he observed. She just smiled weakly and nodded. “We don’t have to if you don’t—” he began.
“I want to.” she interrupted him.
“So are you.”
He couldn’t deny it.
“Do you want to?” she asked.
The honest answer was that every nerve in his body did, bits of him hurt with wanting to, but he was becoming too paralysed by the shakes to do more than nod.
It seemed to be enough for Ava’s purposes. She scooted down his legs, taking the blanket away, and conjured a little square foil pack that she must have smuggled in with her, somehow. “Lie back.” she whispered.
Adam could no more have disobeyed her than he could have willed himself to teleport to Mars. He lay back and shut his eyes, almost hyperventilating as she pulled his pajamas off him.
She made a noise, something between a frightened whimper and a “wow”, and there was a little crinkly noise as she tore open the wrapper of the thing she’d brought with her.
“I don’t know how to put one of those on…” he objected.
“It’s okay.” she promised, and touched him where the contact went through him like an electric shock. “I do.”
After that, while they made plenty of other noises, the only talking they did was in the form of whispered instructions and little two-word prayers.
When he woke in the morning, she was still there. It hadn’t been a dream.
Most of the morning was spent fielding birthday well-wishes for Ava. Her presents were both more numerous and more impressive than Adam’s, but he didn’t mind—she could take them with her, after all.
It was only after the last of their visitors had gone that either of them were able to discuss what had happened the night before, as they were finishing the washing up.
“Did you…” she cleared her throat. “…Was it…okay?”
He took her hand. “It was…kind of awkward.” he confessed.
“Yeah…” she nodded agreement. “I’m sorry…”
“No, no…it was great! Uh…maybe we, uh, just need to practice.”
She thought about that, put her head on one side, put the last fork on the drying rack and vanished into the bedroom.
Her shirt flew out of the door. “So let’s practice!” she called.
“Oh! Right!” He tripped over his own socks in his rush to pull them off and join her.
((Don’t move on to chapter 23 yet! This has been just the first part of Chapter 22: you can find the link to the rest of this chapter below))